Fifth Hottest Year On Record?

  • Date: 25/11/09

Sometimes journalists can wander too far from the relatively safe grounds of reporting and analysis and into the shifting sands of spin. This can be done with what the reporter says, or neglects to say. In both cases the result is a misleading message given to an increasingly confused public. The recent BBC News Online article, “This year ‘in top five warmest’ ” by Roger Harrabin is such a case.

I have written before about the dangers of commenting on data that hasn’t yet been measured. The final temperature data points for 2009 are not yet in, although with ten of the twelve monthly measurements available we must already have a reasonable estimate for the place of 2009 in the ranking of the warmest years.

The BBC article says, “Climate sceptics had pointed out that the temperature rise appeared to have stalled in the last decade or so.”

An important point that should have been made is that it is not just “climate sceptics” that have pointed out that the temperature rise appears to have stalled in the last decade or so. There have been many scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals (Nature and Science among them) that attest to the reality of the temperature standstill, whatever its cause. Some of them have been written by strong supporters of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Indeed, in the recent tranche of leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, the reality of the standstill is confirmed by the staunchest supporters of AGW who bemoan the fact that they cannot explain it. One prominent scientist says it “doesn’t falsify model projections but that doesn’t mean that we can explain what is going on.” So the comment in the BBC article that climate sceptics have pointed out that the temperature in the past decade hasn’t risen is technically true, but doesn’t tell the full story. It is misleading and reveals the articles slant.

Another comment in the article, that the standstill was caused in part by the “Pacific La Nina current, which cools the Earth” is likewise technically true but also misleading. The temperature hiatus has been happening since 2001 but La Ninas are much shorter-term features. See here for the effect of them over the past few years. So whilst the BBC statement is correct it is yet another scientifically incomplete statement.

The main thrust of the piece is that 2009 may well be the fifth warmest on record. We obviously live in the warmest decade following a rise in temperatures between about 1980 and 1998. As long as we are on this temperature plateau all years will be within the top 15 or so years (interestingly some of the highest temperatures have not been in this recent decade but occurred at times when most scientists agree that AGW was not a contributing factor.) Saying 2009 is the fifth warmest year is actually, contrary to the message given in the BBC article, in fact making it average within this warm decade. The headline could just as well read that the “temperature standstill continues” and that 2009 is nothing special. A look at the error bars associated with each year’s temperature estimate would show anyone with any training in science or statistics that all the years are statistically consistent with one another and, scientifically speaking, are part of an statistically impeccable straight line.

The final point made in the article is that the UK Met Office predicts that an El Nino event, should it develop, has a 50% chance of making next year the warmest on record. I hope that the Met Office, who most years say that the following one will be a record breaker (which it never is giving them a considerably less than 50% success rate for such predictions) will also consider the errors of measurement and not make such a claim as a result of an elevated mean that still resides with the errors.


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