The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Earth’s temperature has not plunged at record clip and nationwide record cold not coming

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Meteorologists and climatologists frequently confront bad information about their science on the Internet and elsewhere. It’s nothing new.

But in the past week, particularly egregious claims emerged that have been perpetuated by outlets with large audiences.

These two dubious and deceptive assertions must be dismantled:

1) The global land temperature has just experienced its biggest drop on record.

2) Record cold is predicted for most of the U.S. next week.

The Earth’s temperature has not crashed at a record pace

The misleading claim that global land temperatures have plunged by a record margin was first reported by David Rose of the Daily Mail last week, and it was amplified today in a piece by James Delingpole at Breitbart News.

“Global average temperatures over land have plummeted by more than 1C since the middle of this year — their biggest and steepest fall on record,” Rose’s article begins. Yet it’s easy to explain why this assertion is not only misleading but also pointless.

First, Rose’s claim relies on the satellite record of Earth’s temperature estimated from space, which only dates to 1978. The surface-temperature record, which directly measures the planet’s temperature using thermometers and dates to the late 1800s, exhibits a drop but not a record drop.

More importantly, Rose conveniently headlined the drop in the land temperature while failing to mention that the overall global temperature combining both the land and ocean did not experience a record fall.

The global temperature, including the oceans, fell much more in 1998 than this year — which is apparent in a chart posted on the blog of Roy Spencer, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. And the drop in global temperature has already ended and even reversed. Between October and November, the global satellite temperature went up!

Finally, the drop in temperature that occurred earlier in the year is expected behavior when an El Niño event transitions to La Niña. It is scientifically irresponsible to suggest that it signifies a meaningful change in the course of the planet’s temperature. All long-term analyses of the Earth’s temperature show an unmistakably upward trend, irrespective of year-to-year wiggles.

[For a more technical takedown of Rose’s claim, see the blog Open Mind: How Stupid Does David Rose Think You Are?]

Unfortunately, the House Science Committee shared Delingpole’s flawed synthesis of Rose’s story with 176,000 followers — giving it unwarranted credibility.

Record cold is not coming to ‘almost entire USA’

Climate Depot, the clearinghouse for news tailored for those who have doubts about man-made climate change (or that it is a serious issue), boldly featured the headline: “Record cold coming to ‘almost entire USA’ — Low temperature records set to be SHATTERED”. This is egregious exaggeration.

Yes, after a fall season during which temperatures have been near or at record highs across the nation, the first significant cold snap of the season is expected next week, focused on the western half of the country. I wrote about it Wednesday.

Frigid air mass building in Alaska, poised to spill into Lower 48 next week

But model forecasts offer no indication that record cold will occur over much of the country. While some record-low temperatures are possible in the West, available data suggest that this will not be a cold event of historical significance.

Climate Depot fails to present persuasive evidence to back up the assertion in its headline. It features and seems to misinterpret a tweet from Roger Pielke Sr., an atmospheric science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which stated: “Cannot recall last time I have seen such a cold anomaly forecast across almost entire USA”. But anomalous cold — which simply means “colder-than-normal” — is not the same thing as record cold.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Pieke views a forecast for colder-than-normal weather as remarkable considering that warm weather has dominated the nation in recent months and years.

Unfortunately, Climate Depot’s flawed story was trumped up by the Drudge Report, exposing it to thousands of readers who may well be misled into thinking that normal cold is now somehow something extraordinary.

Serious meteorologists and climate scientists across the country have a responsibility to counter such misinformation.