John Bates: Climate Scientists Versus Climate Data

  • Date: 05/02/17
  • John Bates, Climate Etc.

A look behind the curtain at NOAA’s climate data center.

I read with great irony recently that scientists are “frantically copying U.S. Climate data, fearing it might vanish under Trump” (e.g., Washington Post 13 December 2016). As a climate scientist formerly responsible for NOAA’s climate archive, the most critical issue in archival of climate data is actually scientists who are unwilling to formally archive and document their data. I spent the last decade cajoling climate scientists to archive their data and fully document the datasets. I established a climate data records program that was awarded a U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 2014 for visionary work in the acquisition, production, and preservation of climate data records (CDRs), which accurately describe the Earth’s changing environment.

The most serious example of a climate scientist not archiving or documenting a critical climate dataset was the study of Tom Karl et al. 2015 (hereafter referred to as the Karl study or K15), purporting to show no ‘hiatus’ in global warming in the 2000s (Federal scientists say there never was any global warming “pause”). The study drew criticism from other climate scientists, who disagreed with K15’s conclusion about the ‘hiatus.’ (Making sense of the early-2000s warming slowdown). The paper also drew the attention of the Chairman of the House Science Committee, Representative Lamar Smith, who questioned the timing of the report, which was issued just prior to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan submission to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015.

In the following sections, I provide the details of how Mr. Karl failed to disclose critical information to NOAA, Science Magazine, and Chairman Smith regarding the datasets used in K15. I have extensive documentation that provides independent verification of the story below. I also provide my suggestions for how we might keep such a flagrant manipulation of scientific integrity guidelines and scientific publication standards from happening in the future. Finally, I provide some links to examples of what well documented CDRs look like that readers might contrast and compare with what Mr. Karl has provided.

Background

In 2013, prior to the Karl study, the National Climatic Data Center [NCDC, now the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI)] had just adopted much improved processes for formal review of Climate Data Records, a process I formulated [link]. The land temperature dataset used in the Karl study had never been processed through the station adjustment software before, which led me to believe something was amiss. When I pressed the co-authors, they said they had decided not to archive the dataset, but did not defend the decision. One of the co-authors said there were ‘some decisions [he was] not happy with’. The data used in the K15 paper were only made available through a web site, not in digital form, and lacking proper versioning and any notice that they were research and not operational data. I was dumbstruck that Tom Karl, the NCEI Director in charge of NOAA’s climate data archive, would not follow the policy of his own Agency nor the guidelines in Science magazine for dataset archival and documentation.

I questioned another co-author about why they choose to use a 90% confidence threshold for evaluating the statistical significance of surface temperature trends, instead of the standard for significance of 95% — he also expressed reluctance and did not defend the decision. A NOAA NCEI supervisor remarked how it was eye-opening to watch Karl work the co-authors, mostly subtly but sometimes not, pushing choices to emphasize warming. Gradually, in the months after K15 came out, the evidence kept mounting that Tom Karl constantly had his ‘thumb on the scale’—in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets—in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.

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