Arctic and Antarctic instrument errors produce warming bias

Two new investigations found instrument errors in both Arctic and Antarctic temperature measurements that introduced a warming bias into the data. In the Antarctic, the errors produced a warming bias of as much as 18º F.

Antarctic paper:

Atmospheric temperature measurements biases on the Antarctic plateau, published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology

The abstract reads:

Observations of atmospheric temperature made on the Antarctic plateau with thermistors housed in naturally (wind) ventilated radiation shields are shown to be significantly warm biased by solar radiation. High incoming solar flux and high surface albedo result in radiation biases in Gill (multiplate) styled shields that can occasionally exceed 10°C in summer in case of low wind speed. Although stronger and more frequent when incoming solar radiation is high, biases exceeding 8°C are found even when solar is less than 200 Wm 2. Comparing with sonic thermometers, which are not affected by radiation but which are too complex to be routinely used for mean temperature monitoring, commercially available aspirated shields are shown to efficiently protect thermistor measurements from solar radiation biases. Most of the available in situ reports of atmospheric temperature on the Antarctic plateau are from automatic weather stations that use passive shields and are thus likely warm biased in the summer. In spite of low power consumption, deploying aspirated shields at remote locations in such a difficult environment may be a challenge. Bias correction formulae are not easily derived and are obviously shield dependent. On the other hand, because of a strong dependence of bias to wind speed, filtering out temperature reports for wind speed less than a given threshold (about 4–6 ms 1 for the shields tested here) may be an efficient way to quality control the data, albeit at the cost of significant data loss and records biased towards high wind speed cases.

Arctic paper:

Screen, James A., Ian Simmonds, 2011: Erroneous Arctic Temperature Trends in the ERA-40 Reanalysis: A Closer Look. J. Climate, 24, 2620–2627. doi: 10.1175/2010JCLI4054.1.

The abstract reads:

Atmospheric reanalyses can be useful tools for examining climate variability and change; however, they must be used cautiously because of time-varying biases that can induce artificial trends. This study explicitly documents a discontinuity in the 40-yr European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Re-Analysis (ERA-40) that leads to significantly exaggerated warming in the Arctic mid- to lower troposphere, and demonstrates that the continuing use of ERA-40 to study Arctic temperature trends is problematic. The discontinuity occurs in 1997 in response to refined processing of satellite radiances prior to their assimilation into the reanalysis model. It is clearly apparent in comparisons of ERA-40 output against satellite-derived air temperatures, in situ observations, and alternative reanalyses. Decadal or multidecadal Arctic temperature trends calculated over periods that include 1997 are highly inaccurate, particularly below 600 hPa. It is shown that ERA-40 is poorly suited to studying Arctic temperature trends and their vertical profile, and conclusions based upon them must be viewed with extreme caution. Consequently, its future use for this purpose is discouraged. In the context of the wider scientific debate on the suitability of reanalyses for trend analyses, the results show that a series of alternative reanalyses are in broad-scale agreement with observations. Thus, the authors encourage their discerning use instead of ERA-40 for examining Arctic climate change while also reaffirming the importance of verifying reanalyses with observations whenever possible.

Another new paper shows that there are also problems with readings of surface temperatures in the U.S. Historical Climatology Network:

Fall, S., A. Watts, J. Nielsen-Gammon, E. Jones, D. Niyogi, J. Christy, and R.A. Pielke Sr., 2011: Analysis of the impacts of station exposure on the U.S. Historical Climatology Network temperatures and temperature trends. J. Geophys. Res., 116, D14120, doi:10.1029/2010JD015146.Copyright (2011) American Geophysical Union.

(Full paper here.)

That paper found that poorly-sited stations produced a warming bias whereas well-sited stations showed no century-scale trend.

Criteria for evaluating station siting are given in the table below:


The study found that only 1.2% of stations were in the highest category and 70% of the stations had a warming bias of at least 3.6º F or more. Keep that in mind the next time headlines blare that it was the warmest month, year, decade since…. it was cooler.

See also:

Your Carbon Footprint doesn’t Matter

The State of our Surface Temperature Records

Natural Climate Cycles

Arctic Temperatures: Not So Hot

2010 the 9000th Warmest Year