Commentary

Hot Air for the Millennium

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times, January 17, 2000.
People who don’t think the federal government sometimes exaggerates things a wee bit obviously did not survive the Y2K crisis. Or perhaps they merely sizzled away in the record heat endured by our fair Republic, as recently reported by the Department of Commerce, which has pronounced 1998-99 the warmest years for which we have adequate records — 1998 comes in as hottest and 1999 as second warmest.

One Y2K lesson is that what is said in Washington isn’t necessarily what is, depending on what “is” means. In the case of the nation’s or the globe’s temperature, our government has chosen to trumpet one particular climate history out of several that are available. Not surprisingly, the government tells us about the hottest, while the rest are not remarkable at all.

The heated pronouncement, which actually came from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), is not a result of cooking the books. Instead, it is a result of very selective reading.

The particularly hot data set, known as the Historical Climate Network (HCN), comes from several hundred rural weather stations selected from the roughly 16,000 official sites that are available. But let’s consider two other data sets, one from NASA and the other from the very same NCDC.

NASA’s record is compiled by James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. While the HCN has 1999 as the second-hottest year on record (records go back only to 1895), Hansen’s record ranks it as a very unremarkable 14th warmest, putting it nowhere close to the blazing year of 1934, when there was a real drought (as opposed to 1999, when less of the country than normal experienced extreme dryness).

NCDC’s “other” history is known as “Climatological Division” (CD) record. It uses virtually all of the available data, aggregates them into 344 geographic units (CDs) that are thought to have some climate homogeneity, and then totals them, adjusting for the area occupied by each CD. In this record, both 1998 and 1999 temperatures fall beneath those of 1934. Instead of being second warmest, 1999 will be between fourth and eighth, depending on December data that have not yet been entered.

The peculiar thing about the discrepancy between the CD and HCN records is that the former includes a few stations that are known to be artificially warming because cities have a way of growing up around their weather stations. Why the HCN should now be running warmer than this record is a mystery to everyone. But why the feds only trumpeted the HCN heat should be a mystery to no one. They are trying to whip up hysteria in order to shame the Senate into approving the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Currently, 11 senators (of the required 67) support this economically disastrous treaty.

The United Nations itself recently made a similar pronouncement about 1998-99 for global temperature. Their record goes to 1860. (Ask yourself how the U.S. record goes back only to 1895 while the U.N.’s global history starts in 1860, and you will get an idea of how reliable are our historical statements about “global” warming.)

Needless to say, the U.N.’s story was blatted by every media network that serves it. But there are two other measures of global temperature that, like the NCDC and NASA records for the United States, were not so hot.

The first is University of Alabama climatologist John Christy’s satellite history, which has been carefully corrected for instrument and orbit changes, that shows 1999 to be slightly cooler than the average for the 21 years in which the platforms have been taking our temperature. There are 12 warmer years and eight cooler ones in this history, which shows a slight warming trend only because of the big 1998 El Niño. (This means that the decade from 1998 to 2007 will very likely show a cooling trend.)

The satellite temperatures are known to closely track those measured by weather balloons in the atmospheric layer from 5,000 to 30,000 feet — a zone forecast by computer models of global warming to be heating even more rapidly than the surface. This record extends back to 1958. Fifteen years were warmer than 1999 and 27 were cooler.

The resolution of the difference between the U.N.’s surface temperatures and those measured by the satellites and the weather balloons may spell the end of the global warming crisis. More and more, it appears that the reason they diverge is that warming is trapped largely in very cold airmasses in Siberia that don’t extend up to 5,000 feet, which is the altitude at which the balloon record begins. No one has yet to hear Russians clamoring for a return to the climate of the Stalin era.

As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.” The NASA data are at www.giss.nasa.gov/data, the NCDC CD history is at ftp.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub, and the satellite record is at ftp://vortex.atmos.uah.edu/msu.

Any way you look at it, governments have been less than truthful in telling the whole story about the heat of 1999. But what do you expect? After all, it is the year 2K.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute, state climatologist for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and science advisor to the Greening Earth Society in Arlington, Virginia.