Washington Post Uses Dubious Data on ‘Extreme’ Climate Change
The Washington Post ran a long, complicated story by four reporters on August 14th headlined “Extreme climate change is here.” On the upper left of the front page a map of the lower 48 states showed red blotches scattered across the West, the Northeast, and along the Canadian border from Maine to Montana. The red areas are places where the Post claims the average temperature has already blown past the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global mean temperatures that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has decided will cause climate catastrophe.
As it happens, I had just returned to Washington from more than a fortnight’s holiday visiting my family in Baker County in northeastern Oregon and while there we drove down to southeastern Oregon to tour Steens Mountain, the Alvord Desert, and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. This area according to the Post has already warmed between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. If I had known that the area was already toast, perhaps I would have paid more attention. But I must admit that, after driving several hundred miles and looking at the scenery, I didn’t notice any warning signs of rapid climate change. The cattle grazing in well-watered pastures looked healthy, the crops of native grass hay looked to be bigger than average, and unusually for early August even the endless sagebrush hills still had a green tinge. Nor did the people we talked to in the dining room at the Hotel Diamond (which by the way I highly recommend) or on Steens Mountain (which is one of the most spectacular places in the country) or at the Malheur Refuge’s visitor center mention any difficulties in coping with the dire effects of rapid warming.
Of course, the climate in southern Oregon’s high desert plateau is challenging to begin with. The winters are long and harsh, the growing season is short, and there isn’t much water except for snow runoff from the mountains. The fact that very few people live there caused me to wonder how many weather stations there were across this vast, rugged terrain. Luckily, Mark Albright, a research meteorologist at the University of Washington and Washington state climatologist from 1987 to 2003, was thinking the same thing and did the work for me.
There are two Climate Reference Network weather stations (which are the 114 highest quality weather stations in the country) in eastern Oregon at Riley and at John Day. Both are north of the red zone in Harney and Lake Counties. But there is a weather station at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in the center of the red zone. It’s part of the U. S. Historical Climatology Network (USHCN), which is a much larger set of stations that are also supposed to be fairly high quality. Albright looked at the data from the Malheur station, which starts in 1937. He discovered that, for example, the annual mean temperature in 1945 has been adjusted downward by 1.8 degrees C. He told me that, “Perhaps as much as a quarter of this adjustment is justifiable as a result of changing the time of observation from 5 PM to 8 AM some time around 2011. But the large remainder is likely not justified and is likely NCEI’s [National Center for Environmental Information] effort to cool the past in order to make the present seem warm by comparison!”
That’s not all. Albright added: “It appears observations at Malheur Refuge HQ ended in 2014.” So how is the Malheur station still reporting increasing temperatures even though it shut down in February 2014? Temperature data from nearby stations (which in eastern Oregon and most of the intermountain West aren’t so near by) is used to “infill” the missing Malheur data. Again according to Albright, “Once a USHCN station, forever a USHCN station, regardless of whether it is still operating or not…. As of 2013, fully 21% of USHCN sites were no longer reporting, so their data was being ‘faked’ through the infilling process.”
I endorse Albright’s conclusion: “The bottom line, the adjusted Malheur Refuge HQ data is trash and shouldn’t be taken seriously.” The question is, how many other hot spots on the Post’s map are based on phony data? Another question that needs to be addressed is, why has there been no warming in the entire southeastern United States with the exception of south Florida?
Questions like these are not acceptable to the moral arbiters on the Post’s editorial page. The editorial they based on this dubious story was headlined, “Global warming is already here. Denying it is unforgivable.”