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Climate sceptics see a conspiracy in Australia's record breaking heat

Posted on 3 September 2014 by Guest Author

You could cut the triumphalism on the climate science denialist blogs right now with a hardback copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Their unbridled joy comes not in the wake of some key research published in the scientific literature but in the fact that a climate sceptic has got a mainstream newspaper to give their conspiracy theory another airing.

The sceptic in question is Dr Jennifer Marohasy, a long-time doubter of human-caused climate change whose research at Central Queensland University (CQU) is funded by another climate change sceptic.

I choose the Nineteen Eighty-Four analogy in my introduction because it is one of Marohasy’s favourites. She likes to compare the work of the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) to the various goings on in Orwell’s fictional dystopian novel.

The conspiracy theory is that BoM is using a technique to selectively tamper with its temperature data so that it better fits with the global warming narrative.

The people at NASA are in on it too.

Now the great thing about conspiracy theories is that, for believers, attempts to correct the record just serve to reinforce the conspiracy. Like a video clip of the moon landing on a constant loop, the whole thing feeds back on itself.

Correspondence posted on Marohasy’s blog shows she has been pushing her claims for months that BoM has “corrupted the official temperature record so it more closely accords with the theory of anthropogenic global warming”, according to a letter she wrote to Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, whose parliamentary secretary portfolio includes responsibility for the agency.

Marohasy lays it on thick in the letter, accusing the bureau of engaging in “propaganda” and littering the text with claims of “corruption”.

The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd was approached to cover the “story” and stepped bravely forward with four pieces in recent days covering Marohasy’s claims.

Lloyd wrote there was now an “escalating row” over the “competence and integrity” of the BoM despite the fact that Marohasy has not published her claims in a peer reviewed journal (the two papers mentioned in Lloyd’s story actually relate to rainfall prediction, not temperature).

Yet this matters not.

The climate science denialists, contrarians and anti-environmental culture warriors are lapping it up with headlines like “Australia Government Climate Office Accused Of Manipulating Temperature Data” and “Australian Bureau of Meteorology Accused of Criminally Adjusting Global Warming”.

This evening the BoM has released a statement that explains the processes at the bureau. I’ve posted it in full at the bottom of this post, but here’s a quote:

Contrary to assertions in some parts of the media, the Bureau is not altering climate records to exaggerate estimates of global warming.

Homogenise this

The BoM maintains several sets of data on temperatures in Australia and the agency makes all that data available online.

One of those datasets is known as the Australian Climate Observations Reference Network – Surface Air Temperature (ACORN-SAT) and this is the one BoM used to declare 2013 was the hottest year on record.

Marohasy has been looking at some of the temperature stations that are included in ACORN-SAT and analysing the impact of a method known as “homogenisation” that the BoM sometimes employs with the ACORN-SAT data.

It’s no secret or even a revelation that the Bureau of Meteorology employs these techniques and others.

On the bureau’s website, anyone is free to lose themselves in a world of homogenised data sets, gridded temperature analysis and temporal homogeneity adjustments. Go for your life.

While Marohasy’s central claim – that BoM is doctoring figures to make them more acceptable to a narrative of warming - remains entirely untested in the scientific literature, the bureau’s methods used to compile ACORN-SAT have been peer reviewed.

Unusually, the bureau’s full response to one set of questions from Graham Lloyd has found its way onto at least one climate sceptic blog.

In the response the bureau explained why three specific site records it was asked about had been homogenised.

At Bourke, for example, the station had been moved three times in its history. Detective work had found that a noticeable shift in the readings in the 1950s had likely been due to changes in vegetation around the instrument.

At Amberley, the bureau noticed a marked shift in the minimum temperatures it had been recording, which was also likely due to the station being moved.

Another site at Rutherglen had data adjusted to account for two intervals – 1966 and 1974 – when its thought the site was moved from close to buildings to low-flat ground.

Marohasy wants heads to roll [rolls eyes] because she claims that the Rutherglen site was never moved and so there was no need to homogenise the data.

However, the bureau has documentary evidence showing that sometime before the 1970s the weather station was not in the place where it is now.

The bureau had initially spotted a break or jump in the data that pointed to a likely move at Rutherglen.

Perhaps all of these movements of temperature stations was a conspiracy in itself, cooked up in the 1950s?

Professor Neville Nicholls, of Monash University, worked at BoM for more than 30 years and from 1990 until he left in 2005 had led efforts to analyse rainfall and temperature readings from across the country. He told me:

The original raw data is all still there – it has not been corrupted. Anyone can go and get that original data.

Pre-1910 there was not much of a spread but also there was more uncertainty about how the temperatures were being measured. By 1910, most temperatures were being measured in a Stevenson Screen. A lot of measurements were taken at Post Offices but in many cases these were moved out to airports around the middle of the 20th century. That produces artificial cooling in the data.

Towns for example in coastal New South Wales originally had temperatures taken near the ocean because that’s where the town was. But as the town grew the observations would move inland and that is enough to affect temperature and rainfall.

Are we supposed to just ignore that? A scientist can’t ignore those effects. It’s not science to just go ahead and plot that raw data.

Nicholls said if people didn’t trust the way the BoM was presenting the data they could look elsewhere, such as a major project known as Berkeley Earth undertaken by former sceptic Professor Richard Muller which also used BoM data from as early as 1852 to mid-2013.

A chart showing Australia's warming trend from the Berkeley Earth project A chart from the Berkeley Earth analysis of global temperatures used data from the Bureau of Meteorology to reconstruct average temperatures for Australia going back to 1852. Photograph: Berkeley Earth

Sceptic funding

Before joining CQU, Marohasy spent many years working at the Institute of Public Affairs – a Melbourne-based free market think tank that has been promoting climate science denialism for more than two decades.

After leaving there, she became the chair of the Australian Environment Foundation, a spin-off from the IPA.

Marohasy has said that Bryant Macfie, a Perth-based climate science sceptic, funds her research at Central Queensland University.

In 2008, after Macfie had gifted $350,000 to the University of Queensland in a donation facilitated by the IPA to pay for environmental research scholarships there, he wrote that science had been corrupted by a “newer religion” of environmentalism.

In June, Marohasy made her claims about BoM to the Sydney Institute. In July she travelled to Las Vegas to speak at the Heartland Institute’s gathering of climate science denialists and assorted contrarians.

The Heartland Institute is the “free market” think tank that once ran a billboard advert with a picture of terrorist and murderer Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski alongside the question: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do You?”

Also speaking in Las Vegas was federal MP for the Queensland electorate of Dawson, George Christensen, who appeared on a panel alongside Marohasy.

Christensen described mainstream climate science as “a lot of fiction dressed up as science”.

Data shows warming

Dr Lisa Alexander, the chief investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, explained that in Australia it was not uncommon for temperature stations to be moved, often away from urban environments.

She said that, for example, sites moved only a kilometre or so to more exposed areas such as airports would tend to record lower temperatures.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Here is the timeseries of all datasets used for comparison to the ACORN series for quality control, as shown below the fold in the article above:

    Of particular interest are the Torok and Nicholls (TN, in gold) dataset, used by BOM prior to the development of the ACORN dataset; the Australian Water Availability Project (AWAP, in yellow) which is not homogenized, and the Whole Network Drift Corrected (WNDC, in yellowy green) dataset, which is also not homogenized.  BOM has published an analysis of trends using the range of avialable datasets shown above, and from which the graph above comes.  In it, on table 1 we learn that the total quadratic change from 1911-2010 was 0.98 C for Torok and Nicholls, which was reduced to 0.94 C by in the ACORN dataset.  That is, by replacing the old analysis with a more recent analysis, BOM has decreased its estimate of total warming in Australia over the last century.  Both, however, are still higher than the 0.69 C increase shown by AWAP.  

    Data homogenization does increase the estimated temperture increase over the century.  That, however, is not an intended effect, and the techniques used for data homogenization are blind to their effect on the trend.  They make adjustments which decrease the trend almost as often as they make adjustments that increase the trend.   It just happens to be the case that when you correct the record for data quality without regard of the effects on the trend, the trend happens to increase.

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  2. Marohasy's the same highly imaginative person who detected a plot by ABC to cut off her interview midstream and replace her with the notorious, ubiquitous John Cook. 

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  3. From the recent reactions of the BoM to the series of pieces by Graham Lloyd in The Australian ( it may be that those questioning the integrity of the BoM might, just might, not be  miisguided conspiracists judging from  this paragraph from Lloyd's piece:

    "BoM was unable to provide The Australian with details to substantiate their claim of a site move at Rutherglen in Victoria where the minimum temperature trend had been changed from a cooling trend of 0.35C in the raw data to 1.73C warming after homogenisation. The official station record said there had been no site move at Rutherglen."

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  4. Asthon, Graham Lloyd repeatedly misrepresents the situation.  When he says "The official station record said there had been no site move at Rutherglen", he is referring to the "Station Summary" section of the metadata for Rutherglen which states:

    "No summary for this site has been written as yet."

    Alternatively, he may be referring to the "Station Equipment History", for which we have the note:

    "Historical metadata for this site has not been quality controlled for accuracy and completeness. Data other than current station information, particularly earlier than 1998, should be considered accordingly. Information may not be complete, as backfilling of historical data is incomplete."

    In a later section, on the "reliability of the metadata", we read:

    "The Bureau is part way through a task of entering historical information held on paper file into the corporate database. Until this process is completed there will remain large gaps in the information contained in these metadata documents and considerable caution should be used when deriving conclusions from the metadata. As an example, two consecutive entries about a rain gauge dated 50 years apart may appear in the equipment metadata. This may either mean that nothing happened to that instrument over the 50 years, or that information for the intervening period has yet to be entered into the database. Similarly, if no information was available about instruments at a site when it was first established, fields which were required to have a value present may have used the earliest information available as a best-guess estimate. Sometimes this was the metadata current when the database was established in 1998. In some instances there may be gaps in metadata relevant to the post 1998 period.

    For the above reasons it is recommended that all metadata prior to 1998 be considered as indicative only, and used with caution, unless it has been quality controlled. The Bureau of Meteorology should be contacted if further information or confirmation of the data is required."

    Clearly the station record does not treat an absence of record of a move as an absence of such a move - but that is how Lloyd interprets it.

    Of course, the BOM have asserted that the station used to be in one place, and was later located at a different place, but that they have no record of the time of the move.  I know this because Graham Lloyd reported it:

    "However, the official catalogue says “there have been no site moves during the site’s history”. Former Rutherglen workers said the site had not been moved.

    Asked further about Rutherglen, BOM said “statistical analysis of minimum temperatures at Rutherglen indicated jumps in the data in 1966 and 1974”.

    “These changes were determined through comparison with 17 nearby sites,” it said. “The biases detected in the temperature data for Rutherglen were deemed large enough to require adjustment, based on the statistical tests alone.

    “The site records indicate that at least one site move took place between 1958 and 1975. It is likely but not confirmed that this move took place in 1966. The site records also indicate that the weather station was substantially upgraded around the time of the 1974 break in the temperature record.”"

    (My emphasis)

    Note that the "site records" are the detailed documents on which the metadata for the official station record (linked above) are based.  Note also that Lloyd says the "official catalogue", ie, the document linked above literally said that "there have been no site moves during the site’s history" (note the quotation marks).  That is a fabrication, as you can easily verify by reading the original document.

    There has been absolutely no basis to question the intergrity of the BOM in this episode.  The integrity of Jennifer Marohasy, who makes accusations of fraud based on disagreements about such easilly checkable stations as Amberley without bothering to have made the checks, and of Graham Lloyd who has run strongly on this story based on the word of a known climate change denier, a failure to check basics and a series of misrepresentations of the BOM and its documents, are certainly in question

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  5. Just noticed this - BOM have gone into archives and showed evidence for the move which was obvious from the record. I wonder if they got an apology from Dr Jennifer Marohasy (perhaps they should have sent her a bill for wasting their time). I wonder if Ashton still thinks "it may be that those questioning the integrity of the BoM might, just might, not be miisguided conspiracists". Looks to me like BoM integrity intact - conspiracy theorist - not so much.

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  6. scaddenp @5, very interesting.  I notice one of the documents (Fig 5) notes that the station is "about a mile south east of Rutherglen".  The current station is well over two miles from the town.  That suggests the "office" in 1958 was one of the farm houses, and the site to have been where the BOM suggests, or even further north.

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  7. Yeah scaddenp, very interesting stuff. Some folks sure must hate that pesky real information stuff

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  8. scaddenp, one of the denier's chief arguments is that a scientist who had worked at Rutherglen said that there had been no site moves, a claim also picked up by the Australian.  As noted above, according to the BOM the site move indicated by the BOM occured between 1958 and 1975, and is likely to have occured in 1966.  You have linked to their conclusive evidence that such a move took place.

    What, then, of the contradiction with Bill Johnston's eye witness testimony?

    It turns out, in comments at The Conversation, that he "... had collaborative work there for 4 or 5 years".  When asked which years, he responded:

    "In the late 1990's to early 2000's, which is irrelevant to whatever point you are labouring."

    So, he visited periodically (collaborated) from a period starting in 1995 at the earliest, a point he considers irrelevant to his being quoted in national media and all over the blogosphere as an eye witness that there had been no station move between 1958-1975.

    It turns out, by the way, that he is also denies that there has been any sea level rise over the twentieth century.  As the saying goes, "Once you go over the the darkside (or pseudoscience) in all areas will it distort your thinking."

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  9. Hi, I'm new here. But what are Marohasy and LLoyd trying to say? Does anyone seriously think that dedicated career public servants would fiddle the record at Rutherglen  to "prove" global warming? Or that these same people are part of some global conspiracy? The suggestion is ludicrous. If (as Jennifer claims) some-one should be sacked on the basis of all this, I'd suggest she look closely at her own motivation and scientific rigour. As for Lloyd, what more can be said; other than most of his employer's stable of newspapers studiously ignored the fact that tens of thousands of people marched (last weekend) to bring attention to climate change. His latest effort in the Weekend Australian, (on Antarctic sea ice) is yet another example of trying to muddy the water...rather than trying to inform us as to what is really going on.

    Thanks for all the info. from contributors. It helps to know all is not lost.

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