Lamar Smith Has Valid Reasons for Investigating NOAA

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, questions Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 7, 2012, during the committee's oversight hearing on the Justice Department.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Reading the news lately, one might think that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) is some sort of backward character from the 19th century, a “member of the Flat Earth Society.” So great is the venom directed at him that the UK’s Guardian has referred to him as a “Witch Hunter.”

But what exactly is Smith’s crime?

Under his authority as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Smith has chosen to investigate the research methods of the taxpayer-funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Last year, NOAA released a study that found there has been no “pause” in recent global warming. Because the findings contradict every other set of observed data on global temperatures, and were issued ahead of the Paris Climate summit, Smith wants to know if political bias factored into the report’s formulation.

Adding weight to Smith’s inquiry was the subsequent publication of a study in Nature Magazine that disagreed with the NOAA report, saying the observed “slowdown” in warming is real, and occurred at a time when carbon dioxide emissions have been rising steadily.

Because Smith has chosen to investigate the means by which NOAA reached its conclusions, however, he has been accused of holding “anti-science” views and trying to “intimidate” the scientific community.

Sometimes when there’s smoke, though, there’s fire. And it appears that the Texas congressman may indeed be on to something.

The NOAA paper, “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus” (Karl et al, 2015), contends that there has been no halt to the rise of global temperatures over the past 15 years. This differs with much of recent climate science, including even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) view that “the rate of warming over the past 15 years …is smaller than the rate calculated since 1951.”

In fact, satellite and weather balloon readings of global temperatures have steadily borne this out—that net temperatures have remained relatively stable since the start of the 21st century.

The NOAA study, though, used “significant improvements in the calculation of trends” to assemble “improved versions of both sea surface temperature and land surface air temperature datasets.”

So what exactly did NOAA do to improve its data collection—and thus arrive at a new graph of temperatures that improves on all other recent methods?

It disregarded satellite data of global temperatures.

It included readings from ocean buoys, but disregarded measurements from the nearly 4,000 Argo floats that have been amassing real-time ocean data since the early 2000s.

It included seawater temperature measurements collected from the engine intake valves of ocean-going vessels.

It estimated Arctic Ocean temperatures by extrapolating from nearby land areas.

The result? When compared to satellite, weather balloon, and Argo data, the new findings eliminate the net flatlining of global temperatures in the 21st century, and instead show a series of scraggly rising temperature lines.

A reality check is necessary here—since we’re being told that eliminating satellite and Argo data, while including readings from engine thermometers, will yield a more accurate temperature record.

First, the thermometers installed in ships weren’t intended for such precise measurements. There’s also the possibility of “heat contamination” from the ships themselves. And seawater intake valves vary in depth according to the size and shape of a vessel’s hull—presenting a problem for collecting samples of uniform depth.

Interestingly, NOAA gives priority to these ship readings. As one of the report’s authors explained, “[D]ata collected from buoys are cooler than ship-based data. In order to accurately compare ship measurements and buoy measurements over the long-term, they need to be compatible. Scientists have developed a method to correct the difference between ship and buoy measurements, and we are using this in our trend analysis.”

How exactly did NOAA adjust for this discrepancy? It added 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.25°F) to each buoy to bring their measurements in line with readings taken from ship gauges.

It’s somewhat amusing to look at NOAA’s website, though, and see their justification for using engine intake readings. Essentially, engine readings are portrayed as a step forward in scientific progress, thanks to the “change from ships throwing a bucket over the side, bringing some ocean water on deck, and putting a thermometer in it, to reading the thermometer in the engine coolant water intake.”

There’s also the issue of estimating Arctic sea temperatures based on neighboring land areas. Much of the Arctic Ocean can remain ice-covered throughout the summer, and imposing warmer land surface data on areas of sea ice would skew temperature readings.

NOAA’s approach raises real questions. And those who support the view of catastrophic man-made warming would better serve the overall debate by agreeing to a review of the research methods involved.

If the case for man-made warming is indeed so strong, and so obvious, then there should be no need to resort to ship engine thermometers, for example. And the Argo floats alone have been collecting ocean data for more than ten years. Since their findings corroborate ongoing UAH and RSS satellite readings, as well as weather balloons, it’s hard to believe that the new NOAA study represents such a quantum leap in methodology.

If NOAA is confident in its study, however, it should proudly and readily cooperate with Rep. Smith’s inquiry.


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