Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics … and Graphs

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I got to thinking about how the information about temperatures is presented. Usually, we are shown a graph something like Fig. 1, which shows the change in the US temperatures over the last century.

Figure 1. Change in the US annual temperatures, 1895-2009. Data from the US Historical Climate Network (USHCN DATA) [Yes, it’s in Fahrenheit, not Celsius, but hey, it’s US temperature, and besides I’m doing it in solidarity with our valiant allies, all the other noble countries that are bravely fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the global metric conspiracy … Liberia and Myanmar …]

Whoa, this is obviously a huge and scary change, look at the slope of that trend line, this must be something that calls for immediate action. So, what’s not to like about this graph?

What’s wrong with it is that there is nothing in the graph that we can compare to our normal existence. Usually, we don’t even go so far as to think “Well, it’s changed about one degree Fahrenheit, call it half a degree C, that’s not even enough to feel the difference.”

So I decided to look for a way to present exactly the same information so that it would make more sense, a way that we can compare to our actual experience. Fig. 2 is one way to do that. It shows the US temperature, month by month, for each year since 1895.

Figure 2. US yearly temperatures by month, 1895-2009. Each line represents the record for a different year. Red line is the temperature in 2009. Data source as in Fig. 1. Photo is Vernal Falls, Yosemite

Presented in this fashion, we are reminded that the annual variation in temperature is much, much larger than the ~ 1°F change in US temperatures over the last century. The most recent year, 2009, is … well … about average. Have we seen any terrible results from the temperature differences between even the coolest and warmest years, differences which (of course) are much larger than the average change over the last century? If so, I don’t recall those calamities, and I remember nearly half of those years …

To investigate further, Fig. 3 looks at the decadal average changes in the same way.

Figure 3. US decadal average temperatures by month, 1900-2009. Red line is the average for the decade 2000-2009. Photo is Half Dome, Yosemite.

Most months of the year there is so little change in the decadal averages that the lines cannot be distinguished. The warming, what there is, occurred mostly in the months of November, December, January, and February. Slightly warmer temperatures in the winter … somehow, that doesn’t strike me as anything worth breathing hard about.

My point in all of this is that the temperature changes that we are discussing (a global rise of a bit more than half a degree C in the last century) are trivially small. A half degree change cannot be sensed by the human body. In addition, the changes are generally occurring in the winter, outside of the tropics in the cooler parts of the planet, and at night. Perhaps you see this small warming, as has often been claimed, as a huge problem that “vastly eclipses that of terrorism” (the Guardian). Maybe you think this is a pressing concern which is the “defining issue of our era” (UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon).

I don’t. I’m sorry, but for me, poverty and injustice and racial prejudice and totalitarian regimes and recurring warfare and a lack of clean drinking water and torture and rampant disease and lack of education and child prostitution and a host of other problems “vastly eclipse” the possibility of a degree or two of warming happening at night in the winter in the extra-tropics fifty years from now.

Finally, the USHCN records are not adjusted for the urban heat island (UHI) effect. UHI is the warming of the recording thermometers that occurs as the area around the temperature recording station is developed. Increasing buildings, roads, pavement, and the cutting down of trees all tend to increase recorded temperatures. Various authors (e.g. McKitrick, Spencer,  Jones)  have shown that UHI likely explains something on the order of half of the recorded temperature rise. So even the small temperature rise shown above is probably shown somewhere about twice as large as it actually is …

My conclusion? Move along, folks, nothing to see here …

[UPDATE – Steven Goddard points out below that the USHCN does in fact include a UHI adjustment in their data. The adjustment is detailed here. I don’t agree with the adjustment, because inter alia they claim that the UHI reduces the maximum temperatures in cities. This is contrary to my personal experience and to many studies that find it is hotter in the cities during the daytime as well as at night. But they do make an adjustment.]

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That’s a great way of presenting it. Can you or someone do the same graph(s) for the global temperature?? (I’ll try, but I don’t know if the puny tools I have on my PC coould do it).

aylamp

Edward Tufte’s “The visual display of quantitative information” should be essential reading for all people who are presenting data in graphical format.
http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi

Boudu

So, let me get this straight. A tiny increase in a trace atmospheric gas may, or may not have caused an imperceptible rise in temperature in regions and at times when it has been known to be fractionally colder at least for when we have accurate data which actually may not be that accurate.
Wow. Planetary emergency.
Great post Willis.

Pete

If the graph was GATA, and the title was “Null Hypothesis” and it was published in the MSM, I think normal folks would concur with Willis and his conclusion.

Dr Anthony Hanwell

That is truly astounding! It clearly puts into perspective the small overall rise in temperature compared with the much greater seasonal variations. If these graphs were to appear widely in the MSM, (some hope!) then AGW would be dead and buried in the public mind. It would no longer be possible to spread climate fear and anxiety. The graphs should be sent to all those schools who are spreading AGW propaganda.

Richard111

Excellent. Do you have high definition copies that I can print out and place on public notice boards and/or have printed on a T-shirt. Summer is comming and it WILL warm up. 🙂

Allen63

Excellent!
A genuine common sense depiction. Though AGW fans would call it spinning the data, I guess.

Kate

A leaked document has revealed the US government’s strategy in the UN climate talks.
Titled “Strategic Communications Objectives” and dated 11 March 2010, it outlines the key messages that the Obama administration wants to convey to its critics and to the world media before the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico in November.
Top of the list of objectives is to: “Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change.” It also talks of “managing expectations” of the outcome of the Cancun meeting and bypassing traditional media outlets by using podcasts and “intimate meetings” with the chief US negotiator to disarm the US’s harsher critics.
But the key phrase is in paragraph three where the author writes: “Create a clear understanding of the CA’s [Copenhagen Accord’s] standing and the importance of operationalising ALL elements.”
….”operationalising”? What’s that?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Text of the leaked document:
Strategic communications objectives
1) Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change. This includes support for a symmetrical and legally binding treaty.
2) Manage expectations for Cancun – Without owning the message, advance the narrative that while a symmetrical legally binding treaty in Mexico is unlikely, solid progress can be made on the six or so main elements.
3) Create a clear understanding of the CA’s standing and the importance of operationalising ALL elements.
4) Build and maintain outside support for the administration’s commitment to meeting the climate and clean energy challenge despite an increasingly difficult political environment to pass legislation.
5) Deepen support and understanding from the developing world that advanced developing countries must be part of any meaningful solution to climate change including taking responsibilities under a legally binding treaty.
Media outreach
• Continue to conduct interviews with print, TV and radio outlets driving the climate change story.
• Increase use of off-the-record conversations.
• Strengthen presence in international media markets during trips abroad. Focus efforts on radio and television markets.
• Take greater advantage of new media opportunities such as podcasts to advance US position in the field bypassing traditional media outlets.
• Consider a series of policy speeches/public forums during trips abroad to make our case directly to the developing world.
Key outreach efforts
• Comprehensive and early outreach to policy makers, key stakeholders and validators is critical to broadening support for our positions in the coming year.
• Prior to the 9-11 April meeting in Bonn it would be good for Todd to meet with leading NGOs. This should come in the form of 1:1s and small group sessions.
• Larger group sessions, similar to the one held at CAP prior to Copenhagen, will be useful down the line, but more intimate meetings in the spring are essential to building the foundation of support. Or at the very least, disarming some of the harsher critics.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You will notice a number of important elements that are missing in this strategy. For a start there is no science involved, and no scientific justification for all these new global warming (carbon dioxide) taxes. Then there is the blatant disregard of any democratic processes. Nobody outside of the political and bureaucratic machine will ever get a say in any of this process. I don’t recall anyone from the WWF or Greenpeace seeking or winning any sort of democratic mandate yet they are at the heart of this process, as are Lord Stern, George Soros and Maurice Strong. Also missing is any idea that carbon dioxide taxes might be morally wrong, be counter-productive, inflict massive pain on the poorest people, lead to unimaginable levels of fraud and corruption, and all without “tackling climate change” in the slightest.
The only “climate change” will occur in our financial climate, and the suffocating bureaucratic climate under which we will all have to live in order to regulate every aspect of our lives so that these carbon dioxide taxes can be extorted from us in the first place.
The document reveals five key objectives:
1.) Brainwash the public about the urgency of the coming climate change disaster. If the MSM won’t play ball, then sideline them and use the internet to carry this message to the public.
2.) Set up a bureaucratic framework to monitor and regulate all activities that generate carbon dioxide.
3.) Set up a mechanism to tax all carbon dioxide-generating activities, worldwide.
4.) Work out an international agreement on how the trillions of dollars generated will be dispersed, and to whom.
5.) Embed this mechanism into a UN Treaty, which will legally bind all countries and their governments to the mechanism for ever. No future elected government will be able to stop paying carbon dioxide taxes because of the Treaty which was entered into by a previous head of state or representative.
By the way, a whole series of inter-governmental meetings are scheduled this year to try and ram this down the public’s throat before too many of the public realise that they are being lied to and swindled on a gigantic scale by their own government.

franks

You miss the point completely – where is the tipping point.

Willis, I also recently put the rise of global temperature over the past 160 years into a different perspective. I compared it to the Central England daily high and low temperatures for the past nine years, similar to a graph used by Richard Lindzen in his presentations. As we all know, 0.06 deg C is dwarfed by the annual variation in local temperature:
http://bobtisdale.blogspot.com/2010/04/different-perspective-of-rise-in-global.html

Dr A Burns

A variation of 1 deg F is equal to the recording accuracy of measuring stations:
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ohx/dad/coop/EQUIPMENT.pdf
“MMTS OBSERVER INSTRUCTIONS
To determine the maximum temperature – push “MAX” button.
To determine the minimum temperature – push “MIN” button.
The At Observation temperature is the current temperature displayed.
Record temperatures in whole degrees only.”

franks

How about simplifying the colour scheme.
If the graph lines were limited to just beeding from one colour to another( eg purple to green) the individual lines would be more difficult to see but a trend would stand out. This of course would still, as intended, be dwarfed by the seasonal variation.

Measuring increased (or decreased) heat via the temperature of the ephemeral substance called air 6ft off the earth’s surface will always be challenging, especially while the trend is so much smaller than the seasonal variation.
Why Global Mean Surface Temperature Should be Relegated, Or Mostly Ignored
and the followup:
The Real Measure of Global Warming
And where it all went slightly wrong for a while in The Real Measure of Global Warming & the Sad Case of the Expendable Bathythermograph

Paul

These graphs show the real proportions. Yet they too are misleading.
Showing only 12 points for a year is OK, but you connect them with lines. It gives the feel of continuity. However, you don’t draw the last line, the line form December of one year to the January of the next year. This is important, because of the cyclic nature of the data.

DaveF

If we take into account the various “adjustments”, “homogenizing”, and other exaggerations of the warming data, and the flat line of temperature in the last twelve years or so, it would seem that half the warming stopped at the turn of the century and the other half wasn’t there in the first place.

Larus

Hang on, do you actually think the entire problem is about how well the human body can withstand an ambient temperature rise of several degrees?

Matt

You clearly dont understand how an average temperature works. It doesn’t mean temperatures everywhere go up by only +0.5 deg C. It means overall everything goes up, some by alot, some by a little, some even cool a bit. But in general it means more energy in the system (since temperature is a measure of energy), and +0.5 deg C globally is ALOT of energy.
Just an example, Alaska and western Canada have warmed 3-4 deg C over the last 50 years, more than your 0.5 deg C. This is a non-insignificant amount of warming for these areas. In areas of permafrost, this amount of warming is crucial – the very definition of permafrost means ‘permanently frozen.’ If large areas of permafrost thaw, as is happening in Siberia, we face the release of large amounts of trapped methane, magnifying the warming.
There are untold other numbers of indicators showing the effects of this ‘minimal’ temperature increase, which given the community here, will be outright rejected as alarmist propaganda, so I won’t attempt a list at present.

Capn Jack.

Ellis this is elegant.

Chris Allport

Brilliant !

Capn Jack.

I mean Willis of course.

Willis, might I suggest that you make a 3-D version of your figures 2 and 3 with the Z dimension being each year going into the distance. That way with a three-dimensional viewer (or recording thereof via youtube) one can see each year split out. You could even connect the lines of each year into an undulating surface. Then explore it while recording for youtube. Presto, more natural way of looking at the data.

kwik

Great Post!
Tip to All Norwegians;
OSLO Saturday 17 April 12:00 Auditorium 4, University of OSLO
NIELS AXEL MØRNER and MARTIN HOVLAND :
Sealevel: Observations versus Models !!!!
This is a MUST for all interested in IPCC’s Scary Stories versus real world observations. Dont miss it!

Fudsdad

This is one of the very best articles I have read on AGW.
We should all take every opportunity to persuade others to present temperature comparisons in this manner because it shows how trivial the measured warming is. At the same time, as is implied above, the urban heat-island effect could explain most of the warming anyway.
Does anyone have similar data for the UK?

Sera

Buyer beware- always check the SCALE of the graph…
The first graph is twice as high as it is wide- try reversing that and see what you get. Not so scary now, huh?

RockyRoad

Larus (02:51:21) :
Hang on, do you actually think the entire problem is about how well the human body can withstand an ambient temperature rise of several degrees?
——————-
Reply:
What rise?

Louis Hissink

What year did climate science start using the 30 year climate benchmark to produce the temperature anomalies?

Cold Englishman

One of the best posts I’ve seen in a very long time.
Two of the things to watch on ALL graphs are (1) where is the zero on the Y scale, and (2) what is the Y scale compared to the X scale. The Sea Ice extent on WUWT side panel is a good example. If you show the Zero on the Y scale and half the scale on the Y scale, the graph looks completely different, as you have said, “nothing to see here, move along”.

Chuckles

I recently saw a comment on a blog accusing the author of deception because he had plotted some temperatures not as anomalies, or with a displaced origin at 14 degrees C, but as actual temperatures relative to zero. This somehow gave a ‘distorted’ picture of the gore-bull warming threat.
So, Willis, could I suggest that you show us a plot of HADCRU, GISS, NCDC, USHCN, GHCN or similar annual mean temps, not as anomalies, but as actual graphed temps, with a zero visible on the graph/no displaced origin. e.g. the annual means of your figure 2 above.
For me, the straight line so produced is instructive for us mere mortals, as it starkly shows the temperature increases we experience.

Kate (02:12:25) :
A leaked document has revealed the US government’s strategy in the UN climate talks. […]
• Increase use of off-the-record conversations.

What we need are more on-the-record conversations where people own up to what say.

Spector

These are very good graphs. Perhaps, just for the heck of it, one might include a similar zero or 280ppm based chart of CO2 concentration over the time period that we have reliable data.
In any case, I think these charts are a must-see for anyone making decisions of public policy on climate change or who is influencing public opinion on the subject.

Cold Englishman (03:33:03) :
Two of the things to watch on ALL graphs are (1) where is the zero on the Y scale
Zero F or zero C is meaningless, so you must mean zero K, and that would put things in perspective. On the other hand, chemical reaction rates typically double when the temperature increases 10 C [in the normal temperature regime where we live], so in terms of things happening around us the zero K origin doesn’t look reasonable.

PKthinks

For the uninformed
why are temperature records never shown as means plus minus 2sd (for say the last century)
rather than anomolies from the ‘normal’ warmish period of late 20th century?

Joe

Some of your graphs look just like the rise an fall of Al Gore.
And now for some humor.
The trying to get away from reporter and try not to answer questions trick.
http://www.climategatecountryclub.com/video/fox-confronts-al-gore

A little perspective is a wonderful thing. Nice article, Willis. Thanks!

Willis Eschenbach

Matt (02:52:32)

You clearly dont understand how an average temperature works. It doesn’t mean temperatures everywhere go up by only +0.5 deg C. It means overall everything goes up, some by alot, some by a little, some even cool a bit. But in general it means more energy in the system (since temperature is a measure of energy), and +0.5 deg C globally is ALOT of energy.
Just an example, Alaska and western Canada have warmed 3-4 deg C over the last 50 years, more than your 0.5 deg C. This is a non-insignificant amount of warming for these areas. In areas of permafrost, this amount of warming is crucial – the very definition of permafrost means ‘permanently frozen.’ If large areas of permafrost thaw, as is happening in Siberia, we face the release of large amounts of trapped methane, magnifying the warming.
There are untold other numbers of indicators showing the effects of this ‘minimal’ temperature increase, which given the community here, will be outright rejected as alarmist propaganda, so I won’t attempt a list at present.

I love how people on the web are so quick to tell me what I don’t understand. I do understand that temperatures in Alaska are controlled by the PDO. I also know that they have not risen by anything like 4°C as you claim, and that rather than being 4° above where they were 50 years ago, they are currently about where they were 50 years ago. Here’s the record:

Alaska Temperature Average from First Order Observing Stations. DATA SOURCE
You also say that “if large areas of permafrost thaw” we’re in deep trouble … but the world was a couple degrees warmer earlier in the Holocene, and somehow we didn’t get in trouble. And if “large areas of permafrost” are thawing in Siberia, and melting permafrost causes huge methane releases … then where is the spike in the atmospheric methane content? Here’s that record:

Finally, you say if you posted other things here they would be “outright rejected as alarmist propaganda” … well, if they are anything like your alarmist propaganda about Alaskan temperatures and methane, you are likely correct about their probable fate.

harrywr2

Matt (02:52:32) :
“Just an example, Alaska and western Canada have warmed 3-4 deg C over the last 50 years”
Alaska experienced a ‘step’ change of 5 degrees in 1975. There hasn’t been any warming in Alaska since. Some would call it the ‘Pacific Oscillation’. We don’t have enough data to conclude that there is currently ‘cooling’ in Alaska, as the Oscillation is on a 30 year cycle. The fact that arctic ice is growing is a ‘sign’.

Willis Eschenbach

Sera (03:24:22)

Buyer beware- always check the SCALE of the graph…
The first graph is twice as high as it is wide- try reversing that and see what you get. Not so scary now, huh?

Yes, and if it were ten times as wide as it is tall, it would hardly be scary at all. Which is my point. The graphs which are normally presented in the climate discussion are designed to look scary, as I have purposely done in Fig. 1.

rbateman

Chuckles (03:36:33) :
You mean like these:
http://www.robertb.darkhorizons.org/WhatGlobalWarming.htm
My favorite is Red Bluff, 1875 to present, the UHI Slayer.
What a roaster 1875 was. Not only did they get a hot Indian Summer (fall) they got an equally toasty Indian Spring.
Pass the barbeque sauce.

Yes, I second the motion to end the use of anomalous graphs. Yes, pun intended. [:)]
By the way Willis, excellent article.

1DandyTroll

@Matt
‘Just an example, Alaska and western Canada have warmed 3-4 deg C over the last 50 years,’
Disregarding the mystery of the ever vanishing temperature measurement apparatus’, but warmed 3-4 deg C compared to what? What timeframe was used to calculate that baseline? And what different types of convenient observed temperatures and proxies were used in the cut and paste frenzy?
And besides, local weather phenomenon, is just that, weather.

One of the worst examples of using graphs to distort the truth is in the IPCC Technical summary figure 6, repeated in Archer and Rahmstorf (The Climate Crisis) as their figure 3.1 (but incorrectly referenced). This claims that, because the rate of temperature rise for the last 25 years of the 20th century was higher than the 150 years average, the rate of temperature rise was accelerating. This ignores the fact that in any long sequence with rising and falling temperatures there will be periods when the short term rise is higher than the average and that similar rates of rise were recorded from 1860 to 1880 and from 1910 to 1945.
http://www.climatedata.info/Discussions/Discussions/opinions.php?id=1209170702266403374
An alternative strategy is not to show graphs if they don’t tell the story you want people to hear. The IPCC TAR4 has two very small graphs of simulated and observed temperature and precipitation anomaly. What they don’t show are graphs of temperature relative to zero and precipitation in mm, which tell a very different story with temperature difference between models of 1.5 C and precipitation difference of 150 mm.
http://www.climatedata.info/Temperature/Temperature/simulations.html
http://www.climatedata.info/Precipitation/Precipitation/global.html

Peter Dunford

The standard anomaly procedure is designed to create a graph that looks worrying. If it didn’t, they’d find another way of processing and presenting the data.
Primarily there is the issue of scale to consider. The first graph presents the “anomaly” conventionally, by using a convenient vertical range to represent the slope, and cherry picking that range exaggerates the slope. If you present the anomaly scaled against the actual range from minimum to maximum temperature, the linear temp. anomaly line will appear virtually horizontal. The slope would be virtually imperceptable. Even the actual temp line would have minimal variation.
The other question is, if CO2 acts to make the atmosphere trap and re-radiate more heat downwards, why does the “more” only show up in winter outside of the tropics? Is tropical CO2 broken? Is the rest of the stuff on the fritz and only works to give us “more” when it’s cold? Answers worked out on the back of a peer-reviewed cigarette packet only, please.

NicL

@Matt,
How did you define permafrost ?
“……… – the very definition of permafrost means ‘permanently frozen.’ …”
Surely most of the land you describe as “permanently frozen” should more properly be defined as “recently frozen” or “become frozen in the last (approx) 800 years”.

rbateman

Matt (02:52:32) :
How long does Methane last in Earth’s atmosphere?

Curiousgeorge

@ aylamp (01:59:37) : Tufte is a very smart guy. I once had the honor of attending one of his seminars, and chatting with him afterward. Quite inspirational. I have a framed copy of Minards’ “Napoleons March to Moscow” hanging in my den also, to remind me of what constitutes good practice.

slow to follow

Willis – please can you check out Paul’s comment above at 2:44:20?
I think he is right – adding another Jan point on the RHS of the graphic will make the gradients on and off the graphic compatible.

Joe

Willis Eschenbach (04:19:07) :
What I have hard to swallow is to put all the planet into one temperature average of up or down when the data stations are unproportional and the variations from region to region can differ significantly by how much precipitation or draught has occured which also has some influence on the temperatures of that region. From the equator up to the poles just on a world rotational map shows clearly 2 regions of climate by the movement of the cloud cover that does not cross the equator.

Bernie

Willis:
Elegant. I also like the cool calm waterfall effect as opposed to the panic-stricken desert effect. Context is part of the message.
As someone said, Tufte’s one day seminar is well worth the money plus you get copies of all his books. I went with my team of survey folks – we do large scale surveys – and it had a significant impact on how we design client reports, etc.

Leon Brozyna

So, putting this whole thing down to simple terms:

…a degree or two of warming happening at night in the winter in the extra-tropics fifty years from now.

Let’s see now … the average low temp for Valentine’s Day here is 18° F, so around 14 February 2060, I can expect that, if it’s an average day, I’ll walk out to a morning temperature of approx. 20° F.
*yawn*
I’m going back to bed …