Opinion: Daily Journal

The Climate-Data Problem

RALEIGH – Don’t expect the passionate debate about government policy and climate change to abate anytime soon.

Most of those who favor new taxes, regulations, and other public policies aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions truly believe that without government intervention, there will be a worldwide cataclysm.

And most of those who oppose such policies, on the grounds that cost of government intervention would greatly exceed the benefits, truly believe either that the role of human action in influencing climate change or its projected harm has been exaggerated.

But what if the entire debate is predicated on raw data that are hopelessly flawed? What if the surface stations that collect temperature readings, including several right here in North Carolina, are in violation of basic standards?

That’s what meteorologist Anthony Watts and his team of 650 volunteers say they have discovered – by inspecting more than 860 of the 1,221 climate-monitoring stations that generate data on temperature trends in the continental United States.

“We were shocked by what we found,” Watts wrote in a recent report, Is the U.S. Temperature Record Reliable?. “We found stations located next to the exhaust fans of air conditioning units, surrounding by asphalt parking lots and roads, on blistering-hot rooftops, and near sidewalks and buildings that absorb and radiate heat.”

“In fact,” Watts continued, “we found that 89 percent of the stations … fail to meet the National Weather Service’s own siting requirements that stations must be 30 meters or more away from an artificial heating or radiating/reflecting source.”

Because sources of artificial heat have proliferated over time, the problematic locations of so many climate-monitoring stations pose the very risk possibility that the apparent 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit warning trend in the U.S. during the 20th century is overstated, or perhaps entirely a manifestation of flawed monitoring.

The Watts report has pages of photographs of particular stations with location problems. Here in North Carolina, his team found a Tarboro station next to a wastewater treatment tank, a Fayetteville station next to a heat-radiating sidewalk, and a Hendersonville station next to a parking lot and satellite dish.

Surely all participants in the climate-change debate would agree that securing reliable temperature information over time is absolutely critical if America and other countries are to make sensible policy decisions. Unfortunately, relocating the stations to appropriate sites can’t correct the potential bias in the temperature trends already observed.

Moreover, if the U.S. climate stations are poorly sited, that’s bad news for the reliability of the global temperature trends, because our temperature records are said to be “the best in the world.”

I strongly recommend that everyone interested in the global-warming debate go to Watts’ website, SurfaceStations.org, and read more about this interesting and disturbing topic. As Colorado State University climatologist Roger Pielke has written, the new Watts report is an “outstanding and clearly written report that documents a major problem.”


Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation