No man is an (Urban Heat) Island

Observant readers will have noticed a renewed assault upon the meteorological station data that underpin some conclusions about recent warming trends. Curiously enough, it comes just as the IPCC AR4 report declared that the recent warming trends are “unequivocal”, and when even Richard Lindzen has accepted that globe has in fact warmed over the last century.

The new focus of attention is the placement of the temperature sensors and other potential ‘micro-site’ effects that might influence the readings. There is a possibility that these effects may change over time, putting in artifacts or jumps in the record. This is slightly different from the more often discussed ‘Urban Heat Island’ effect which is a function of the wider area (and so could be present even in a perfectly set up urban station). UHI effects will generally lead to long term trends in an affected station (relative to a rural counterpart), whereas micro-site changes could lead to jumps in the record (of any sign) – some of which can be very difficult to detect in the data after the fact.

There is nothing wrong with increasing the meta-data for observing stations (unless it leads to harassment of volunteers). However, in the new found enthusiasm for digital photography, many of the participants in this effort seem to have leaped to some very dubious conclusions that appear to be rooted in fundamental misunderstandings of the state of the science. Let’s examine some of those apparent assumptions:

Mistaken Assumption No. 1: Mainstream science doesn’t believe there are urban heat islands….

This is simply false. UHI effects have been documented in city environments worldwide and show that as cities become increasingly urbanised, increasing energy use, reductions in surface water (and evaporation) and increased concrete etc. tend to lead to warmer conditions than in nearby more rural areas. This is uncontroversial. However, the actual claim of IPCC is that the effects of urban heat islands effects are likely small in the gridded temperature products (such as produced by GISS and Climate Research Unit (CRU)) because of efforts to correct for those biases. For instance, GISTEMP uses satellite-derived night light observations to classify stations as rural and urban and corrects the urban stations so that they match the trends from the rural stations before gridding the data. Other techniques (such as correcting for population growth) have also been used.

How much UHI contamination remains in the global mean temperatures has been tested in papers such as Parker (2005, 2006) which found there was no effective difference in global trends if one segregates the data between windy and calm days. This makes sense because UHI effects are stronger on calm days (where there is less mixing with the wider environment), and so if an increasing UHI effect was changing the trend, one would expect stronger trends on calm days and that is not seen. Another convincing argument is that the regional trends seen simply do not resemble patterns of urbanisation, with the largest trends in the sparsely populated higher latitudes.

Mistaken Assumption No. 2: … and thinks that all station data are perfect.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page