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Climate data: what's hidden?

Richard Black | 19:21 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

I started Monday's post with the words "it's beginning to look like a pattern"... and already, by Wednesday, the pattern is in evidence once more.

Another inquiry into allegations made against climate science has reported - and again, the conclusions are broadly along the lines that there have been issues with how the science has been practiced, but nothing that undermines the fundamental outline laid down by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Sir_Muir_RussellCertainly there have been differences between the various inquiries carried out so far - notably (as Fred Singer correctly reminded me during the week) that they've examined different areas of climate science.

So while the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency's report on Monday looked at the science of ascribing impacts from climatic trends, the Muir Russell inquiry released on Wednesday deals with the more fundamental issue of determing the trends themselves.

The focus on alleged errors with climate impacts is really a recent arrival, beginning in earnest at the end of last year, when questions began to be raised about the IPCC's projections for Himalayan glacier melt.

Bloggers jumped on "HimalayaGate" and soon many other alleged "-gates" were opened on climate impact projections, including the ones I wrote about on Monday.

The "sceptical" blogosphere had in fact been excercised for much longer by temperature records - the much-discussed hockey stick controversy, allegations that data and methods were being kept secret, the use of temperature proxies such as tree-rings, and so on.

The e-mails hacked from the University of East Anglia - "ClimateGate" - takes us back into this territory; and this is one of the things that makes it the most interesting of the various reviews thus far.

It's also more detailed than most. Submissions to it are openly available on its website, and the ones I've read (not exhaustive) have all contained passages of interest.

It's taken the longest of the inquiries, and would appear to be the most thorough, although there are areas in which you could reasonably argue it could have been more thorough - indeed the team admitted as much, but pointed out that it actually had to finish and reach a conclusion sometime.

Protestor_suggesting_oil_money_funded_the_hackPerhaps most interesting, though, is that implicitly it investigates the accusers as well as the accused.

And while the accused come out of it generally rather well - honesty and rigour not in doubt, nothing to undermine the IPCC analyses - it's perhaps harsher on those firing the darts.

If I had a dollar for every e-mail and blog comment I've received down the years saying that CRU teams (and others) were hiding temperature station data away behind their firewalls and manipulating it to produce the temperature record they wanted, I would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

The Muir Russell team investigated this by just about the simplest method you could think of. They downloaded the data themselves from public databases, and wrote a computer program that would combine the datapoints into a temperature record for the instrumental period.

The entire process took less than two days. All the data they needed was freely available, writing the code was a cinch, and it produced a curve similar to the ones produced by CRU and its counterparts in the US and Japan.

Anyone competent in the field could do the same, the inquiry team elaborated. You can take out data points you don't like, you can apply whatever correction factors you want (such as the one that Nasa's GISTEMP series uses to compensate for the dearth of measuring stations across the Arctic), and you can therefore end up with a temperature curve that might look a little different: but don't say it can't be done, because it can.

And while the university should have responded much better to Freedom of Information requests - which the university admits - many of the FoI requests came, the Muir Russell panel said, from competent people who should have known that the data is freely available and can easily be processed.

The Muir Russell report won't satisfy everyone that everything is rosy in the bed of climate science - and of course, it hasn't investigated whether the overall IPCC picture of climate science is sound, because to do that you'd need a very different sort of panel.

It might be thought notable, however, that criticism from the most prominent "sceptical" commentators and bloggers has so far concentrated on issues such as openness and dealing with FoI (Global Warming Policy Foundation), whether IPCC rules on data submission were broken (Climate Audit) or the job of an IPCC author (Bishop Hill), rather than hidden data or the lack of an impact on the overall picture of global climate change.

I've been guilty of writing excessively long posts recently, so I'm going to end this one here - this issue won't go away, not least because the InterAcademy Council review of the IPCC is still outstanding - in the meantime, I look forward (as always) to your thoughts on this one.


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