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Canada's ClimateData Web Portal: Normal Science, Not Fake

Posted on 17 October 2019 by David Kirtley

In August, the Canadian government launched a new website called ClimateData.ca which "provides engineers, public health professionals, urban planners, mayors, and anyone else doing long-term planning with user-friendly climate change information, data, resources and tools" (press release). The website uses past weather data from 1950-2011 along with computer modelling to project the possible future impacts of climate change in Canada. Françoys Labonté, the Executive Director of Computer Research Insititue of Montréal (CRIM), one of the developers of the new web portal, said the website's purpose is "to provide Canadian leaders and managers with easy access to useful, actual and future climate data and information to assist them in anticipating and managing climate change-related issues over the medium and long term."

ClimateData Website

Figure 1. The home page of Canada's new website: ClimateData.ca. Click for larger image.

It didn't take long for climate science denialists to notice the lack of weather data before 1950 and assume that Canadian government scientists must be up to something nefarious. Blacklock's Reporter was the first to claim, "Canada omitted 100 years’ worth of weather data from a federal website intended to illustrate climate change." Their story is behind a rather expensive paywall (even for us AGW alarmists who are "rolling in grant money"). But the story was picked up by Toronto Sun journalist, Lorrie Goldstein, claiming that Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) "omitted a century’s worth of observed weather data in developing its computer models on the impacts of climate change." James Delingpole blared from Breitbart that the ECCC "has erased a century’s worth of observed temperature data, claiming its modelled computer projections are more accurate." Delingpole goes further in his conclusion:

Others less committed to green activism might find it somewhat sinister that the international agencies charged with maintaining the world’s temperature records are destroying them because the factual evidence doesn’t support the global warming scare narrative.

These wild claims about omitted, scrapped, erased, or destroyed historical weather data are completely false, and they are a total misrepresentation of the types of computer modelling used for ClimateData.

Explaining ANUSPLIN

One reason weather data before 1950 was not used is because the data is too sparse—there were fewer weather stations pre-1950, especially in northern Canada. The purpose of ClimateData is to provide detailed climate information for all of Canada, including small towns and remote forested or mountainous areas far from any weather stations. The only way to get such information is to extrapolate from known weather records and use computer models to "fill in the gaps."

To do this they used a software package called ANUSPLIN (Australian National University Spline). If Delingpole and Goldstein et al had read the "About" page  of the ClimateData website they would have learned about ANUSPLIN and that "Quality-controlled, but unadjusted, station data from the National Climate Data Archive of Environment and Climate Change Canada data (Hutchinson et al., 2009) were interpolated onto the high-resolution grid using thin plate splines."

I contacted a media relations spokesperson at ECCC, Gabrielle Lamontagne, who said, "Environment and Climate Change Canada has not removed or deleted any weather data in developing models on the impacts of climate change.  The complete record of weather station observations is publicly available on the Meteorological Service of Canada’s Historical Data page." You can still access pre-1950 weather records.

So, no, data was not erased and replaced with fake data which shows more warming.

The use of ANUSPLIN is another reason pre-1950 data was not used. Lamontagne, explains: "the data was calibrated using observational dataset (ANUSPLIN), which was only available from 1950. At that time, the weather station density across Canada, particularly in the northern regions, became dense enough for reliable gridded datasets to be created."

A paper about ANUSPLIN (McKenney et al. (2011) Customized Spatial Climate Models for North America) gives more information about this type of modelling:

In forestry and many other sectors, there is often a need for estimates well away from meteorological stations, which tend to be clustered near agricultural and urban areas. This need is met by “spatial” climate models,  which can provide estimates of climate at both specific locations of interest and in the form of regular grids. Projected climate change is another motivating factor in the development of these products. Spatial models of projected future climate allow these changes to be mapped, regional impacts to be assessed, and adaptation measures to be developed.

Those last few sentences perfectly describe the role of ClimateData and why modelling using ANUSPLIN was fit for that role.

McKenney et al. further state: "All spatial climate modeling begins with, and ultimately depends on, data from meteorological stations."

So, again, real-world weather records were used to generate more accurate models of Canada's climate for the second half of the 20th century.

Details from Downscaling

ANUSPLIN is a form of "statistical downscaling" commonly used in regional and local computer modelling. Most computer models used in climate studies (General Circulation Models, GCMs) are global in scale and their resolution (grid sizes of 100-150 km) is too coarse to give the finer details needed to show impacts at country, province, or city levels (grids of ~10km). To show these finer details statistical downscaling is used. Demystifying Climate Models defines statistical downscaling as a:

method by which a statistical relationship is established from observations between large-scale variables, like atmospheric surface pressure, and a local variable, like the wind speed at a particular site. The relationship is then subsequently applied to GCM output to obtain the local variables from the GCM output.

Downscaling climate models using Canada's weather observations provided ClimateData with models of Canada's climate over the second half of the 20th century. Models were then run into the future (to 2100) to illustrate what Canada's climate may be like under three different emissions scenarios. There is nothing sinister or deceptive about this. The only way to get information about what climate change may do to Canada during this century is to run computer models. And the best way to do that is to base those models on actual weather observations.

Cherry Picking Old Records and Confusing Weather for Climate

Blacklock's Reporter, as well as the others who parroted their article, also complained that some Canadian weather records prior to 1950 were warmer than current temperatures. Here's an example from Goldstein's article: "Vancouver had a higher record temperature in 1910 (30.6C) than in 2017 (29.5C)." What is so special about those two years? Why not mention 1908 (33C), which had an even higher temperature than 1910? Or 2009 which had the highest recorded temperature for Vancouver at 34C? (Source.)

Does global warming mean that Vancouver must post new record high temperatures every single year? Of course not. These critics are confused about the difference between weather and climate.  Comparing a single temperature record from some random year with that from another random year doesn't tell you much about climate or climate change, it is merely comparing one weather statistic with another weather statistic.

Vancouver Temps

Figure 2. Vancouver's hottest days, second half of the 20th century, now, and in three possible futures with global warming. From ClimateData.ca. Click for larger image.

Gabrielle Lamontagne, the spokesperson for ECCC, summed up these distinctions in the context of ECCC's role in communicating to the public about weather and climate:

Regarding the use of observation data mentioned [in] the articles, according to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, between 1948 and 2016, Canada's climate has warmed by 1.7 °C for Canada as a whole, and 2.3 °C for northern Canada, with the strongest warming in northwestern Canada. This warming trend does not mean that the average temperature is higher in each successive year. As climate varies naturally, there have been and will be years that are warmer or cooler than previous years over the country, as well as different magnitudes in warming among regions.  As a result, extremely high or low temperatures have occurred throughout the period of observational records, even though there is an overall warming trend across all regions.  When Environment Climate Change Canada reports on past changes in hottest days or storms, ECCC’s experts do not use model data, only observation data. When Environment and Climate Change Canada wants to know if changes in hottest day temperatures have anything to do with global warming, ECCC’s experts compare the observed data with model simulations of the expected climate response to global warming.

Two Options

Are Blacklock's Reporter et al. honestly confused about the difference between weather and climate, and the complexities of climate computer modelling, or are they just trying to use that complexity to confuse their readers? Whatever the case, whether it's misinformation or disinformation, their readers come away from their articles with a skewed understanding of climate science. Instead of an awareness of how scientists use weather data to inform their climate models, these readers come away with a false view that scientists are throwing out old data and replacing it with "fake" data.

Climate science can be a confusing topic. It draws from just about every major field of science, so no one can ever grasp every detail about everything involved. Of course this is true for the general public, but it's also true for scientists. Full disclosure: before writing this post I had never heard about ANUSPLINE, nor did I know about computer model "downscaling" and how modellers can interpolate weather data into climate models. Fascinating!

When faced with something new we have two options: 1) we can trust that what we are reading is an honest description of the novelty, or 2) we can dig deeper and try to learn more about the new topic. The readers of Blacklock's Reporter et al are given a specific view about Canada's new web portal which falsely implicates climate scientists in a fraudulent scheme. Readers may trust this view as reality, or if they are truly curious about climate science and honestly want to learn about the global warming effects in Canada (both now and in the future) they would do well to look closer at the ClimateData website and see where that may lead them.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 29:

  1. Fake news isn't new: capitalism essentially runs on it yet the higher ideal still seems to triumph!

    The laws we live our lives by allow fake news by making public companies prioritise the shareholder.... It has been said that the first line of defence is a moral law: so, after all that being said, "Houston, do we or do we not have a problem?"

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  2. "Are Blacklock's Reporter et al. honestly confused about the difference between weather and climate, and the complexities of climate computer modelling, or are they just trying to use that complexity to confuse their readers?"

    Probably the later. These people obviously aren't morons, in the main. We are talking about deliberate ignorance. When your income or ideology depends on not knowing, you will sometimes not want to know. The trouble is the deliberate ignorance mindset eventually becomes real ignorance, and maybe kills brain cells!

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  3. Now we need our elected "leaders" to start using the portal instead of catering to the corporate agendas of greed and influence.

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  4. As a practical matter, bashing and blaming the corporations will never work.  That's because corporations are overwhelmingly owned by ordinary people.  Roughly speaking, 50% of the US stock market is in pension funds and retirement accounts.  Roughly another 25% in individual accounts.  And the remainder is in "other accounts," a very large part of which is "sovereign wealth funds," i.e., government owned funds that belong to all the citizens of the country.

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  5. markpittsusa @4 , heavens above, we should never blame either corporations or ordinary people for this climate mess. Instead we should tell them what they are doing is fine. Give everybody a green light to continue the same behaviour. (sarc)

    What is your solution? Hold hands and sing Kumbya? Is it "more research is needed?"  Statements that technology is the answer, ie stating the obvious? Begging corporations to do better? Just what is it?

    This problem clearly can't be solved purely by individual initiative, because that clearly isn't working. The solutions might be uncomfortable for some, but will require something like a carbon tax and dividend scheme. Even the IMF is on board with that.

     

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  6. nigelj. I appreciate your perspective, but I can't see how your comments negate my point. Aren't we are looking for solutions rather than looking for whom to blame?

    Besides the practical problem of trying to make corporations pay, there is a logical problem as well: If a handful of corporations are responsible for most global warming, then a handful of auto makers are responsible for tens of thousands of highway deaths. (So lets make the auto makers should pay.)

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  7. markpittsusa @6

    Before we talk about solutions we have to identify who is doing the wrong thing, in order to figure out what the best solution is. In the climate issue this includes both corporations and individuals so its messy.  I agree to the extent that an accusatory stance is not helpful eg: "You climate villain need to be cast into the eternal fire". But its hard to escape the fact that corporations and people are to "blame".

    "If a handful of corporations are responsible for most global warming, then a handful of auto makers are responsible for tens of thousands of highway deaths. (So lets make the auto makers should pay.)"

    I have never suggested corporations should pay some form of damages for climate negligence. This is obviously not the right way to approach things, although I wont be standing in the way of anyone who tries it out.

    But corporations all have a responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint. A carbon tax would help push them and consumers to reduce emissions according to the IMF. The IMF seem to think its very practical. Did you read the link? 

    And you still haven't answered my question. What would you suggest be done?

     

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  8. markpittsusa @6, your fossil fuels versus car accidents analogy is  menaingless because it compares oranges and apples  Cars are not a problem, provided they are driven correctly and if not that is the drivers fault. Fossil fuel production is a problem because it is causing climate change,  reflecting on both producers and consumers. But the way out is things like carbon taxes, or possibly cap and trade, or a "GND" those sorts of initiatives.

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  9. Can anyone explain to me how denialists can, without apparent irony, state that no-one can know weather and climate data prior to around the late 1800s yet state with utter certainty how the MWP, various ices ages and the like were, hundreds to millions of years ago.

    All of which data came from the same institutions and scientists!

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  10. WOL, some of the answer might be found here: wilful ignorance.

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  11. nigelj and mike,

    The first step in efforts to correct activity that is discovered to create negative impacts or risk of negative impacts is improved awareness and understanding that it needs to be changed or stopped.

    If that fails to achieve the required correction, the next step is making it harder to get away with the unsustainable harmful behaviour (even if people claim that good things are being done because of the unsustainable harmful activity, none of that Good is sustainable)

    If that step fails then penalties or fines are required.

    And what really needs to be penalized is people who continue to try to spread and popularize misleading information that compromises the efforts to achieve the results through the 'First Step'.

    We reached the stage of requiring penalties for bad climate action behaviour a couple of decades ago.

    It appears that the winners and leaders will need to be penalized to get the required corrections, and maybe penalized for past actions). The longer that people can excuse bad behaviour by complaining that penalties are not helpful or are not justified the worse things will become.

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  12. One Planet - Who gets to decide what is "misleading information?"  (Give me that job, and I can rule the world.)

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  13. nigelj & Wol - The problem in my opinion is that there is plenty of "willful ignorance" on both sides: On the one hand there is denial. On the other hand, extreme (i.e., scientically refuted) exaggeration.

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  14. One Planet Only Forever @11, the problem with penalties and fines for C02 emissions is it would presumably require penalising various corporations who produce emissions and this will be a very hard sell politically because there will be huge corporate push back against parties trying to do this. Likewise for consistency I think you would have to penalise or fine ordinary people for their high carbon footprints, which would probably get huge political resistance.

    I promise you any Party suggesting the idea of penalties or fines idea would plummet to near zero in the political polls, so such policies dont have much chance of being enacted into legislation or would just be cancelled by the next party elected. People have a huge psychological aversion to the ideas of fines or penalties.

    I'm not saying the idea is philosophically wrong, just that its doesn't appear to be remotely viable in the real world. Carbon tax schemes or cap and trade look more poltically viable, and several countries have these. They help modify behaviour. Economics 101. They also have an element of pernalty in them, but its not so "in your face".

    Of course we can penalise bad behaviour in other ways that are indirect. Shaming people and corporations, not voting for them, ostracising them, not using their products and services, etcetera.

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  15. dmarkpittsusa "The problem in my opinion is that there is plenty of "willful ignorance" on both sides: On the one hand there is denial. On the other hand, extreme (i.e., scientically refuted) exaggeration."

    I think the willful ignorance is  mostly on the denialist side of things. I concede there is some exaggeration by a few warmist individuals but they are small in number.  Guy McPherson a biologist claimed climate change could cause human extinction within a couple of decades (or something like that) , and a ridiculous website suggested temperatures could soar ten degrees within a decade but these are a very small minority of scientists and individuals. Still its annoying because it gives denialists ammunition.

    I'm not sure what exaggeration you are referring to, but I would make the point that there is no evidence of exaggeration in any of the IPCC findings, and in fact plenty of hard evidence suggests the IPCC are overly conservative in their findings. Such information is easily enough googled. 

    The science is multifaceted and compelling and has therefore not surprisingly lead to a consensus. Claiming IPCC reports are exaggerated is therefore just opinion, and pretty uninformed opinion.

     

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  16. markpittsusa, sorry for spelling your name wrong. Typo. 

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  17. nigelj - Here is an exaggeration I see or hear 10 times a day:

    "Climate change is an existential threat."

    How many peer-reviewed scientific papers say that humanity is even remotely likely to cease to exist due to climate change?

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  18. Existential threat? It depends. For instance the geopolitical unit Bangladesh won't continue to exist as we know it, due to SLR. 

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  19. Markpittsusa, @17, yes I do hear that one. Its important to bear in mind climate change is an existential threat for many animal and plant species. That's what scientists subscribe to and theres plenty of published research on it.

    But some environmental lobby  lobby groups throw the term  existential threat around in a loose fashion to imply humans are at risk of extinction. I'm a bit uncomfortable with this, as it's  not really tenable to me. I haven't read a paper suggesting human extinction is literally possible. But it is not something scientists are promoting with the exception of G McPherson.

    Of course there's  evidence climate change could cause increased mortality in tropical regions.

    But one should ask the question "has the term existential threat and the group extinction rebellion hurt efforts at mitigation"? Oddly enough it seems to it hasn't, and may be motivating mitigation.

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  20. It depends how esistential threat is perceived. Denialists hear " exaggerated claim that humans would go extinct". Warmists hear " a wide scale threat to many forms of life and socioeconomic systems". DB makes a good point related to this.

    But defintions are important to get right. People who use the term existential threat need to qualify it better, but the use of the term seems to be resonating with the public in general.

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  21. Doug & Nigel -  I understand and agree.  But that's not what most people understand "existential threat" to mean.

    I think the tactic will backfire when Deniers point out that we're talking about scuttlefish, not human beings.

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  22. mikepittsusa@12,

    As examples of how misleading marketing is identified, this website has shared a massive number of uncovered cases of misleading information regarding climate science. This item is one of them.

    And this website also links to Denial 101, a course to teach people the many ways that misleading marketing can be identified.

    Basically, when there is available observations and information, any claim that does not adequately address the available information is misleading. And repeating an incorrect misleading claim after it has been exposed as misleading is Repeat Offending.

    Though some people may disagree about what is misleading, when there is a better understanding available, an understanding that best explains all of the available information, trying to keep others from being aware of it being the best understanding at this time is misleading.

    Science is tricky that way. All there ever is is the best understanding at this (meaning any) time. But science has a way of developing understandings that are sustainable even if some details are brought into clearer focus. An example is the way that molecules are still made up of atoms even though much more detailed understandings have developed.

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  23. nigelj@14,

    Cap & Trade is a penalty program. So is a Carbon Tax, even if it is Carbon Fee and Rebate.

    But my point is that the most correction resistant power players (not wanting the corrections of energy systems to happen) will probably need to be threatened with penalty. It appears that some of the recent changes of tune, more powerful people changing to be more supportive of actions to rapidly reduce fossil fuel use, could be the result of concerns about being penalized for not changing their attitudes and actions.

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  24. markpittsusa - Considering that 'corporations' weren't mentioned at all in the OP, and are not the subject of the discussion (rather, the subject is distorted claims against the Canadian ClimateData site), I would have to consider your comments on this thread to be entirely off topic as per the comments policies. 

    Moderators, please note. 

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  25. markpittsusa said - "Roughly speaking, 50% of the US stock market is in pension funds and retirement accounts. Roughly another 25% in individual accounts."
    ------------
    I'm not convinced that is true

    Percent of Financial assests held by various wealth groups in 2004:

    the top 1% 50.3%
    The next 9% 35.3%
    That's 85.6% for the top 10%
    the bottom 90% owned 14.4%

    Percent of total wealth held by various wealth groups in 2004

    top 1% - 33.4%
    top 5% - 57.5%
    top 10% - 69.5%
    bottom 50% — 2.5%

    LINK
    -----------


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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Shortened and hyperlinked URL breaking page formatting.

  26. Markpittsusa @ 21

    “Doug & Nigel - I understand and agree. But that's not what most people understand "existential threat" to mean.”

    Climate change is not an existential threat to humans but it is an existential threat to civilization. Considering what has happened to humans in the past when civilization breaks down, using existential threat to describe climate change seems not only reasonable but an appropriate depiction.

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  27. Hank@26

    Campaign groups and high prominence individuals routinely conflate climate change with the possible '6th mass extinction', that may be happening, to imply to their followers, by throwing around sciency sounding words like methane, tipping points and permafrost, that near term human extinction is likely unless we do what they demand.

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  28. BTW, I'm a bit worried that John Cook et al's newest report will give plenty of ammunition to the smarter denialists/propagandists out there...
    America Misled - How the Fossil Fuel Industry Deliberately Misled Americans About Climate Change

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  29. Yikes, I was wondering why they tacked most of the word "Spline" onto the anagram "ANUSPLIN", then I read a little closer.

    Apologies, I'm still getting through my first morning coffee.

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