‘BEST’ researchers release not-yet-peer-reviewed findings supporting validity of temperature station records and rejecting urban heat island arguments. Climate ‘skeptics,’ having anticipated good news, cry foul … and climatologists long supportive of the evidence wonder, ‘So? What’s New?’

Editor’s Note:Findings of a closely watched independent research effort headed by Berkeley Professor Richard Muller reinforce evidence produced by NASA, NOAA, and the Hadley Center, undercutting positions taken by many climate “skeptics” concerning land temperature stations and effects of urbanization.

Having in some ways jumped on the “BEST” bandwagon in hopes it would strengthen their case, skeptics were quick to reject the findings, which Muller wrote support long-held findings based on evidence. Some scientists long convinced of the soundness of their concerns in effect said the Muller team’s findings provide more impetus for what they’ve been saying all along: the temperature station data are legitimate, and urban heat island effects don’t change that equation.

A Forbes.com posting by Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, was mockingly headlined: “Breaking News: The Earth Goes Around the Sun, and It’s Still Warming Up.”

“Oh, we already knew that,” Gleick opened his post.

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (with the humble acronym BEST) has been working on some novel ways of addressing shortcomings of the world’s land temperature stations.

The research team, led by Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller, now has released four new papers (submitted, but not yet peer-reviewed or published) covering a number of topics:

  • new methods of dealing with problematic station data;
  • evaluating effects of urbanization on global temperatures;
  • looking at how big an impact station siting makes; and
  • examining short-term variability in the temperature record.

The BEST analyses closely match existing land temperature records produced by NASA, NOAA, and the United Kingdom’s Hadley Centre, despite using differing techniques for station data analysis. They present additional evidence indicating that neither urbanization nor poor station siting has much of an influence on temperature records.

Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller

With the release of the new BEST reports came an impressive media blitz. Articles quickly appeared in The Economist, the Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, and The Wall Street Journal and also throughout much of the more specialized blogosphere.

That media frenzy is somewhat unusual for papers that have neither been peer-reviewed nor actually published yet, and perhaps illustrates just how political this issue has become …. and how much attention the BEST effort had attracted from climate watchers both welcoming and doubting the merits of the effort.

That said, experts evaluating the BEST work largely agree with the researcher’s general thrust, and it is thought unlikely that the main conclusions will change after peer review and publication. The BEST researchers have also made their code and data available for the larger community to use to replicate their work and pursue additional studies.

The BEST reports contain a number of interesting enhancements in methods and results. They develop some novel methods for combining fragmentary station records and dealing with station re-locations and other problems, called “inhomogeneities,” that could lead to biases in the temperature record. They also develop a new spatial interpolation technique to considering individual stations and calculating temperature over large distances between them.

The video above (also available here) shows the BEST temperature reconstruction from 1800 to 2010 using 39,000 different weather stations. The results are quite similar to those produced by other groups, despite the inclusion of considerably more data, new techniques for dealing with inhomogeneities, and different spatial analysis techniques.

The new BEST paper on the Urban Heat Island effect addresses a common complaint raised by those skeptical of the surface temperature record. Muller and his coauthors used high-resolution satellite data to classify station locations as either urban or rural. They find, oddly enough, that urban stations are warming slightly less rapidly than rural stations. While more nuanced analyses can still be undertaken looking at different definitions of development and different ways of dealing with spatial coverage issues, these results suggest it is increasingly unlikely that much of the observed modern warming is the result of urbanization.

Similarly, the new paper on station siting reaffirms conclusions of previous papers by Menne et al and Fall et al that poorly sited stations have an average temperature trend nearly identical to that of well sited-stations. Muller and his coauthors concluded that “The absence of a statistically significant difference between the two [poorly and well-sited] sets suggests that networks of stations can reliably discern temperature trends even when individual stations have large absolute uncertainties.”

Muller has had a bit of a reputation as a climate “skeptic” in the past, and his conclusions from these studies, which he described in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed), are worth repeating:

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections. Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate. How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.

Not surprisingly, some steadfast “skeptics” took heart from the last two sentences in Muller’s op-ed. But all in all, the BEST reports so far provide far less comfort than those skeptics had been hoping for, even if those supporting the so-called “consensus” science fault the effort for in some ways merely re-inventing the wheel.

*This feature was edited shortly after initial posting.

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Zeke Hausfather

Zeke is an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with a strong interest in conservation and efficiency. He was previously the chief scientist at C3, an energy management and efficiency company,...