Hot air for the millennium

Hot air for the millennium
March 1, 2000

Any of you who don’t think the federal government is composed largely of alarmist gasbags obviously did not survive last December’s Y2K crisis. Or perhaps you merely sizzled away in the record heat our fair republic endured, as reported by our friends from the Department of Commerce, who have pronounced 1998-1999 the warmest years in the United States for which we have adequate records—with 1998 the hottest, and 1999 the second-warmest.

January’s Y2K lesson taught many of us that what is said in Washington isn’t necessarily what is, depending what the meaning of “is” is. 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 available versions. Not surprisingly, the one they choose to tell us about is the hottest, and the rest are not remarkable at all.

But 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 is known as the Historical Climate Network (HCN), composed of several hundred rural weather stations selected from the roughly 16,000 official sites that are available. For a broader (and cooler) perspective, consider two others, one from NASA, and another from the very same NCDC.

The first is University of Alabama climatologist John Christy’s satellite history, which has been carefully corrected for instrument and orbit changes. It 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 itself shows a slight warming trend only because of the big 1998 El Nino. (Which 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 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.

Resolving the difference between the U.N. ’s surface temperatures and those measured by the satellites and 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 air masses in Siberia that don’t extend up to 5,000 feet—the altitude at which the balloon record begins. We have yet to hear any 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.

However you view it, our governments have been less than truthful in telling the whole story about the heat of 1999. What do you expect? After all, it is the year 2K.


According to Nature magazine, University of Virginia environmental sciences professor Patrick J. Michaels is probably the nation’s most popular lecturer on the subject of climate change. Michaels is the author of Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming.