More errors identified in contrarian climate scientists' temperature estimates

Human emission of heat-trapping gases is causing the Earth to warm. We’ve known that for many decades. In fact, there are no reputable scientists that dispute this fact. There are, however, a few scientists who don’t think the warming will be very much or that we should worry about it. These contrarians have been shown to be wrong over and over again, like in the movie Groundhog Day. And, a new study just out shows they may have another error. But, despite being wrong, they continue to claim Earth’s warming isn’t something to be concerned about.

Perhaps the darlings of the denialist community are two researchers out of Alabama (John Christy and Roy Spencer). They rose to public attention in the mid-1990s when they reportedly showed that the atmosphere was not warming and was actually cooling. It turns out they had made some pretty significant errors and when other researchers identified those errors, the new results showed a warming.

To provide perspective, we know the Earth is warming because we can measure it. Most of the heat (93%) goes into the oceans and we have sensors measuring ocean temperatures that show this. We also know about warming because we have thermometers and other sensors all over the planet measuring the temperature at the surface or in the first few meters of air at the surface. Those temperatures are rising too. We are also seeing ice melting and sea level rising around the planet. 

So, the evidence is clear. What Christy and Spencer focus on is the temperatures measured far above the Earth’s surface in the troposphere and the stratosphere. Generally, over the past few decades these two scientists have claimed the troposphere temperatures are not rising very rapidly. This argument has been picked up to deny the reality of human caused climate change – but it has been found to be wrong.

What kinds of errors have been made? Well first, let’s understand how these two researchers measure atmospheric temperatures. They are not using thermometers, rather they are using microwave signals from the atmosphere to deduce temperatures. The microwave sensors are on satellites which rapidly circle the planet. 

Some of the problems they have struggled with relate to satellite altitudes (they slowly fall over their lifetimes, and this orbital decay biases the readings); satellite drift (their orbits shift east-west a small amount causing an error); they errantly include stratosphere temperatures in their lower atmosphere readings; and they have incorrect temperature calibration on the satellites. It’s pretty deep stuff, but I have written about the errors multiple times here, and here for people who want a deeper dive into the details.

It’s important to recognize that there are four other groups that make similar measurement estimates, so it’s possible to compare the temperatures of one group against another. The new paper, completed by Eric Swanson and published by the American Meteorological Society compares the results from three different groups. He focused on measurements made over the Arctic region. His comparison found two main differences amongst the three groups that suggests the errors.

To better appreciate the issues, the satellites have instruments called Microwave Sounding Units (MSUs) or more recently, Advanced Microwave Soundings Units (AMSUs). These instruments allow reconstruction of the lower troposphere (TLT), the mid-troposphere temperature (TMT), and the lower stratosphere temperature (TLS). But the measurements are not at a specific location (like a thermometer) - they are smeared out over large spaces. As a consequence, it’s possible to have one layer of the atmosphere contaminate the results of another layer. You wouldn’t for instance, want your measurement of the troposphere (lower atmosphere) to include part of the stratosphere (above the troposphere).

Among the key differences among the research teams are their methods to ensure this contamination is minimized. According to the recent paper, which was published in January 2017:

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Posted by John Abraham on Thursday, 11 May, 2017

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