The UAH Global Temperature Dataset at 30 Years: A Look Back at the Early Days

Reposted from Dr. Roy Spencer’s Blog

March 30th, 2020 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Today (Monday, March 30) is the 30th anniversary of our publication in Science describing the first satellite-based dataset for climate monitoring.

While much has happened in the last 30 years, I thought it might be interesting for people to know what led up to the dataset’s development, and some of the politics and behind-the-scenes happenings in the early days. What follows is in approximate chronological order, and is admittedly from my own perspective. John Christy might have somewhat different recollections of these events.

Some of what follows might surprise you, some of it is humorous, and I also wanted to give credit to some of the other players. Without their help, influence, and foresight, the satellite temperature dataset might never have been developed.

Spencer & Christy Backgrounds

In the late 1980s John Christy and I were contractors at NASA/MSFC in Huntsville, AL, working in the Atmospheric Sciences Division where NASA managers and researchers were trying to expand beyond their original mission, which was weather support for Space Shuttle launches. NASA/MSFC manager Gregory S. Wilson was a central figure in our hiring and encouragement of our work.

I came from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Ph.D. in Meteorology, specializing in the energetics of African easterly waves (the precursors of most Atlantic hurricanes). I then did post-doc work there in the satellite remote sensing of precipitation using microwave radiometers. John Christy received his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois where he did his research on the global surface atmospheric pressure field. John had experience in analyzing global datasets for climate research, and was hired to assist Pete Robertson (NASA) to assist in data analysis. I was hired to develop new microwave satellite remote sensing projects for the Space Shuttle and the Space Station.

James Hansen’s Congressional Testimony, and Our First Data Processing

In 1988, NASA’s James Hansen testified for then-Senator Al Gore, Jr., testimony which more than any single event thrust global warming into the collective consciousness of society. We were at a NASA meeting in New Hampshire. As I recall, UAH’s Dick McNider on the plane ride up had just read a draft of a paper by Kevin Trenberth given to him by John Christy (who had been a Trenberth student) that discussed many issues with the sparse surface temperature data for detecting climate change.

During lunch Dick asked, given all the issues with the lack of global coverage and siting issues with surface data sets discussed by Trenberth, if there wasn’t satellite data that could be used to investigate Hansen’s global claims? NASA HQ manager James Dodge was there and expressed immediate interest in funding such a research project.

I said, yes, such data existed from the NOAA/NASA/JPL Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU) instruments, but it would be difficult to access approximately 10 years of global data. Note that this was before there was routine internet access to large digital datasets, and ordering data from the government had a very large price tag. No one purchased many years of global data; it came on computer 6250 bpi computer tapes each containing approximately 100 MB of data, and computers then were pretty slow. The data we wanted was from NOAA satellites, and NOAA would reuse these large (10.5 inch) IBM tapes rather than to keep the old data tapes around using up storage space.

It turns out that Roy Jenne who worked data systems at the NSF’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder had years before taken it upon himself to archive the old NOAA satellite data before it was lost altogether. He kept the data on a “mass storage system” (very large and inefficient by today’s standards) and I believe it was Greg Wilson who made the connection to gain us access to those data.

We obtained somewhat less than 10 years of data from NCAR, and I decided how to best calibrate it and average it into a more manageable space/time resolution. I had frequent contact with JPL engineers who built the MSU instruments, Fred Soltis in particular, who along with Norman Grody at NOAA provided me with calibration data for the MSU instruments flying on different satellites.

We enlisted John Christy to analyze those data since he brought considerable experience with diagnosing global datasets for climate purposes. One of the first things John discovered was from comparing global averages from different satellites in different orbits: They gave surprisingly similar answers in terms of year-to-year temperature variability. This was quite unexpected and demonstrated that the MSU instruments had high calibration stability, at least over a few years. It also demonstrated that NOAA’s practice of adjusting satellite data with radiosondes (weather balloons) was backwards: the differences others had seen between the two systems were due to poor spatial sampling by the radiosondes, not due to changes in the satellite calibration stability.

In addition to the critical historical data archived by Roy Jenne at NCAR, we would some of the more recent satellite data that was kept at NOAA. We didn’t have quite ten years of data, and an editor at Science magazine wanted ten full years of data before they would publish our first findings. We were able to order more data from NOAA to get the first 10 years’ worth (1979 through 1988), and Science accepted our paper.

The NASA Press Conference

On March 29, 1990 we held a “media availability” at the communications center at NASA/MSFC. For some reason, NASA would not allow it to be called a full-fledged “press conference”. As I recall, attendance was heavy (by Huntsville standards) and there was no place for me to park but in the grass, for which I was awarded a parking ticket by NASA security. JPL flew a remaining copy of the MSU instrument in as a prop; it had its own seat on a commercial flight from Pasadena.

Jay Leno would later mention our news conference in his monologue, and Joan Lunden covered it on Good Morning America. While we watched Ms. Lunden on a monitor the next morning, a NASA scientist remarked that he was too distracted by her long, slender legs to listen to what she was saying.

Our 1990 Senate Testimony for Gore

After we published our first research results on March 30,1990, we received an invitation to testify for Al Gore in a Senate committee hearing in October, 1990 on the subject of coral bleaching. Phil Jones from the University of East Anglia was also there to testify.

As people filed into the hearing room, I saw a C-SPAN camera being set up, and having noticed that Al Gore seemed to be the only committee member in attendance, I asked the cameraman about the lack of interest from other senators. He said something like, “Oh, Senator Gore likes it this way… he gets all the media attention.”

We still used overhead projectors back then with view graphs, and I thought I’d better check out the equipment. The projector turned out to be seriously out-of-focus, and the focus adjustment on the arm would not fix it. I remember thinking to myself, “this seems pretty shoddy for Congress”.

Senator Gore launched into some introductory remarks while looking at me as I struggled with the projector. From his comments, he was obviously assuming I was Phil Jones (who was supposed to go first, and who Gore said he had previously visited in England). I thought to myself, this is getting strange. Just in time, I realized the projector arm was bent slightly out of alignment, I bent it back, and took my seat while Phil Jones presented his material.

Our testimony, which was rather uneventful, led to the traditional letter of thanks from Gore for supporting the hearing. In that letter, Gore expressed interest in additional results as they became available.

So, when it came time to get the necessary additional satellite data out of NOAA, I dropped Gore’s name to a manager at NOAA who suddenly became interested in providing everything they had to us at no charge… rather than us having to pay tens of thousands of our research dollars.

Hundreds of Computer Tapes and an Old Honda Civic

It might seem absurd to today’s young scientists, but it was not an easy task to process large amounts of digital data in the late 1980s. I received box after box of 9-track computer tapes in the mail from NOAA. Every few days, I would load them up in my old, high-mileage, barely-running 2-door Honda Civic and cart them over to the computer center at MSFC.

NASA’s Greg Wilson had gotten permission to use the computer facility for the task. At that time, most of the computer power was being taken up by engineers modeling the fuel flows within the Space Shuttle main engines. As I added more data and processed it, I would pass the averages on to John Christy who would then work his analysis magic on them.

I don’t recall how many years we would use this tape-in-the-mail ordering system. Most if not all of those tapes now reside in a Huntsville landfill. After many years of storage and hauling them from one office location to another during our moves, I decided there was no point in keeping them any longer.

A Call from the White House, and the First Hubble Space Telescope Image

Also in 1990, John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff to President George H. W. Bush, had taken notice of our work and invited us to come up to DC for a briefing.

We first had to bring the NASA Administrator V. Adm. Richard Truly up to speed. Truly was quite interested and was trying to make sure he understood my points by repeating them back to me. In my nervousness, I was apparently interrupting him by finishing his sentences, and he finally told me to “shut up”. So, I shut up.

The next stop was the office of the Associate Administrator, Lennard Fisk. While we were briefing Fisk, an assistant came in to show him the first image just collected by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This was before anyone realized the HST was miss-assembled and was out of focus. In retrospect, it was quite a fortuitous coincidence that we were there to witness such an event.

As the day progressed, and no call was coming in from the White House, Dr. Fisk seemed increasingly nervous. I was getting the impression he really did not want us to be briefing the White House on something as important as climate change. In those days, before NASA’s James Hansen made it a habit, no scientists were allowed to talk to politicians without heavy grooming by NASA management.

As the years went by, we would learn that the lack of substantial warming in the satellite data was probably hurting NASA’s selling of ‘Mission to Planet Earth’ to Congress. The bigger the perceived problem, the more money a government agency can extract from Congress to research the problem. At one point a NASA HQ manager would end up yelling at us in frustration for hurting the effort.

Late in the afternoon the call finally came in from the White House for us to visit, at which point Dr. Fisk told them, “Sorry, but they just left to return to Huntsville”, as he ushered us out the door. Dr. Wilson swore me to secrecy regarding the matter. (I talked with John Sununu at a Heartland Institute meeting a few years ago but forgot to ask him if he remembered this course of events). This would probably be – to me, at least – the most surreal and memorable day of our 30+ years of experiences related to the satellite temperature dataset.

After 1990

In subsequent years, John Christy would assume the central role in promoting the satellite dataset, including extensive comparisons of our data to radiosonde data, while I spent most of my time on other NASA projects I was involved in. But once a month for the next 30 years, we would process the most recent satellite data with our separate computer codes, passing the results back and forth and posting them for public access.

Only with our most recent Version 6 dataset procedures would those codes be entirely re-written by a single person (Danny Braswell) who had professional software development experience. In 2001, after tiring of being told by NASA management what I could and could not say in congressional testimony, I resigned NASA and continued my NASA projects as a UAH employee in the Earth System Science Center, for which John Christy serves as director (as well as the Alabama State Climatologist).

At this point, neither John nor I have retirement plans, and will continue to update the UAH dataset every month for the foreseeable future.

60 thoughts on “The UAH Global Temperature Dataset at 30 Years: A Look Back at the Early Days

  1. Great story. Interesting to see right from the beginning the need to exaggerate to win funding was in play.

    Thanks for the sterling effort and continued commitment.

  2. Wow! What an American Treasure Dr. Roy is! This review of his reads like a spy thriller. Notice how Dr. Roy cites many others who did this or that? This is the mark of Professional Person who values reality over ego. I hope Dr. Roy never retires as his attention to reality is a safeguard against the conversion of Science to Political Science. Press On, Dr. Roy!

    • Agreed! I enjoyed reading this story. Reminded me so much of my own experiences dealing with Government reps. Those old computers and data were a bitch to deal with – yet at the time I was still in awe of them! They made life so much easier. Now my phone has far – let me iterate – FAR more power! And seems to be a PITA. It delivers such stupid reports from the internet, which didn’t exist back then.

      • Right. We seem now to have far faster & greater access to increasingly fake, misleading and idiotic information.

  3. ” At one point a NASA HQ manager would end up yelling at us in frustration for hurting the effort.”

    That’s a big tell. How many subordinates working at NASA decided to “get the message” when publishing their work.

  4. 30 years ago I was happy go lucky. Yesterday I got email from the UK’s Power Networks
    “You are receiving this email because you are on our Priority Services Register. Not sure why you are on our Priority Services Register?”
    No idea why, unless they think anyone posting at WUWT is 110 years old.
    However, the media today warns:
    “Households are warned to prepare for BLACKOUTS by keeping torches and warm clothes nearby as energy firms battle to keep the lights on during coronavirus crisis”
    It’s not funny any more or some kind of joke all.

    • How, exactly, does COVID-19 adversely affect power production? A power plant doesn’t require all that many bodies to run it. With the economy on “hold”, there should be plenty of capacity.

      • Staff. If the staff are off ill & something fails, it’ll take time to get an issue fixed.

    • When I first read your comment, I thought you meant you were told to have a torch that was used in medieval times, the one with fire. Then I remembered that what Britons call a torch we call a flashlight. I must admit, however, that as crazy as the world has become — between COVID-19 and eco-madness — we might need a fire torch before this is all said and done.

      • “Torch” was my first thought, too. However, I took the next step in my mind and added pitchfork.

  5. Wonderful story and it highlights just how many issues are clouded by politics and the pursuit of funding.

  6. With this evidence (ah, testimony) at hand—much appreciated, Dr. Spencer!—just imagine how many other shenanigans have occurred within NASA, NOAA and the Legislative and Executive Branches of the United States as regards hidden agendas relating to “climate change”.

    The Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at University of East Anglia (ref “Climategate”) was not even the tip of the iceberg.

    • Totally agree ! A class act in the world of ‘climate science’, now contrast these impeccable credentials agains those of Mann, Flannery, Gore, etc….
      An absolute “ no-brainer”….

  7. The forces a bad intent always seem to get the jump on those who would do good. Dr. Spencer, thank you for this post telling the truth.

  8. Who are the young guys in the photo. Were they lab assistants. Bet they didn’t know what a” long strange trip” it would be when they set out to do some science.

    • Tom Roe
      March 31, 2020 at 7:36 am

      Not sure if your enquiry is serious or not…it is after all April 1 already here in NZ.

      However, I’m pretty sure the guy standing up is Dr. Spencer…don’t know who the other one is.

      More than happy to be corrected though.

  9. As the years went by, we would learn that the lack of substantial warming in the satellite data was probably hurting NASA’s selling of ‘Mission to Planet Earth’ to Congress.

    That’s odd, because between 1979 and 1988, the period apparently covered by their first Science paper, UAH_TLT shows more warming than GISS. Here they are compared (GISS off-set to UAH’s 1981-2010 base).

    http://www.woodfortrees.org/plot/uah6/from:1979/to:1989/plot/uah6/from:1979/to:1989/trend/plot/gistemp/from:1979/to:1989/offset:-0.42/plot/gistemp/from:1979/to:1989/offset:-0.42/trend

  10. Will the Pope join NASA to end this man made CO2 causing global warming? The Pope is all in…he will stop it…nothing stops the Pope. Some call him Pope the Dope….he doesn’t care…BTW, he says there is no Hades…but he doesn’t know where Satan dwells. That CO2 Demon is doomed.

  11. Thanks Dr. Spencer, keep up the good work. Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of mag tape, and I guess the same goes for a box of it through the post.

  12. A nice piece of first hand history by the creator of the MSU global temperature dataset. NASA climateers shot themselves in the foot m MSU global temperature sets to keep them honest after Hansen went ‘The Full Monty’ on floods, burning, pestilence…. by 2000.

    Also, it is interesting that scientists with real data were not alarmist at all. Thank you gents for taking the slings and arrows for cleaving to the truth.

    • Yes, strange how all the US temperatures flat-lined into the Pause once the USCRN network started taking proper measurements…

      But that warming at the bottom of the ocean or deep in sub Saharan Africa where no gold standard exists is as scary as ever.

  13. “In 2001, after tiring of being told by NASA management what I could and could not say in congressional testimony, I resigned (from) NASA . . .”

    Sadly so many of our politicians are too cowardly or self-serving to resign when pressured to be dishonest. And this applies to not a few scientists who see their funding threatened.

  14. From the article: “As the years went by, we would learn that the lack of substantial warming in the satellite data was probably hurting NASA’s selling of ‘Mission to Planet Earth’ to Congress. The bigger the perceived problem, the more money a government agency can extract from Congress to research the problem. At one point a NASA HQ manager would end up yelling at us in frustration for hurting the effort.”

    More evidence that Human-caused climate change is a political/money issue.

    Great story, Roy. So you went to see the president and NASA put the kaboosh on it at the last second. I bet the president might be a little irritated if he found out NASA was manipulating him like that. Wasting his time.

    • Sadly, in the scientific community, there are those who are struggling to raise funding who are pressured into distorting the presentations and even lying. Those who would expose this have the threat of having their careers destroyed. This is a huge threat when you have spent years completing your studies including a PhD and post doctoral research before establishing your own research lab.

      Perhaps it would be good if the number of lawyers among the American politicians was drastically reduced and they brought in many more engineers, doctors, farmers, successful business people and the likes from the real world – all people who had proved themselves over many years.

  15. Thanks for sharing Roy.

    Here is a WEB application I made that makes your data come alive:
    https://cfys.nu/GTA/

    No manual yet, but start with selecting a dataset and try out the buttons.
    Please note the application requires a modern bowser and works best on PC/laptops. Mobile phones is harder because of their small screen.

    Enjoy!

  16. And long may you continue with your monthly update, Roy. Checking up on it is my monthly ritual. Thanks for this lovely tale.

  17. The discussions about “Climate Change” has been going on for more than 20 years. Within the past 70+ years, ASHRAE has been using the same standards for figuring heat loss and heat gain without any changes. The engineers know that at times we may have fluctuations in heat degree days and cooling degree days. For the most part, the variance is never more than 10% from the mean, figured from the previous years data. The engineering data has been unchanged during my lifetime as a designer, which is close to 60 years. Cherry Picking years or sections of years to validate ones opinion is not science, it is outright pseudo science.

  18. Harrumph. 9 track tapes? I shared and office with 3,500 7 track 556 bpi tapes with NEMS data on it from the Nimbus E Microwave Spectrometer. I would take a literal pallet of them on a skidder to building 39 and processed them on the MIT mainframe. Shame you folks do not go back and somehow get the NEMS and SCAMS data and bring the sat record back to 1970.

    • How about an alternative? We rescued the High Resolution Infrared Radiometer (HRIR) Data, along with scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA GSFC.

      We reformatted the data, fixed some anomalies, and updated it to modern standards. It is available now through the NSIDC. Records of Arctic and Antarctic ice dating back to 1966.

      Oh by the way, there is some very interesting findings pertaining to the Arctic ice cover difference from Nimbus 1 of 1964 and Nimbus II from 1966. Just saying…

  19. I was apparently interrupting him by finishing his sentences, and he finally told me to “shut up”. So, I shut up.

    Funny. Today in 2020 it’d be totally proper for you to lecture the guy (or pretty much anyone in DC) & rap him upside the head w/your ruler if his attention wandered. 😉

  20. Dr. Spencer,

    Thank you for the historical review of your satellite data work. Congratulations to you, John Christy and the others who have worked on this important effort for the past 30 years.

    Your book, Blunder, was the second book I read about the Global Warming issue. I read it while on a boat, during late summer, watching the afternoon thunder storms rise to the top of the troposphere and release energy bound for “out of this world”. I will never forget the concurrence of these two things, one intriguing, the other spectacular.

  21. Congratulations Dr. Spencer on your 30 years at this.

    Thank you for providing the world with useful data interpreted objectively…… following the data using the scientific method.

    Following this course has frequently resulted in a path with strong resistance against a current in the opposite direction from group think science(politics) and a tremendous amount of criticism.

    Being an elite authority and leader, your constantly maintaining professionalism and following the observations/empirical data has been an inspiration to millions of others, like me that still follow authentic science.

    And your ability to effectively communicate (written and verbal) is 2nd to none!

  22. I was there in your beginning. I had an office in A wing at the Research Institute on the other end of the hall from where John Christy had his office. That was my first summer at UAH as a student and I was interested in the work that John and Dick McNiter was doing at the time. John told me about the project to rescue the tapes and get the old data off of them for studies of the atmosphere. This is one of the things that got me interested in what other old data NASA might have as I was struggling at the time to access NASA’s images of the Moon from Lunar Orbiter. At least in part your project was the early though germ to our own effort to get the Lunar Orbiter tapes for our LOIRP project.

    I remember the Senate testimony a bit different from you. UAH management at the time (Dr. Harwell), knew that it was a big deal and while he may not have been hard on you, Gore was hard on John as this did blow up the plan at NASA to get a lot more funding for Mission to Planet Earth. Gore later went and demanded that NASA (or another agency like NOAA) give Kevin Trenberth $5 millions dollars so that they could start doing the computer modeling that was the basis for where a lot of the schenangins started with climate data, that led to Mike Mann’s MBH-98 paper with the spliced data sets and strip bark pines as global climate indicators.

    UAH was in the crapper for money on this but was able to get some money to start the Center for Global Hydrology, that John eventually took over.

    Greg Wilson, our IT guy in the Research Institute was a great guy and had all the links to the Alabama Supercomputer Center and the Cray that you guys used to run your data on.

    The result of your testimony that day set Gore back several years in his efforts to push climate change, even after becoming Vice President. You guys should get a special note on your membership cards in heaven.

    I remember talking to John one day about funding, and how little they had. One of the University of Alabama System Board of Directors was Gary Neil Drummond. As a student our satellite project caught the attention of the System Board of Directors and our Interim President at the time, Joe Moquin from Teledyne Brown, had us give a presentation where Drummond was at. John said later that he had talked to Drummond (who was the CEO of one of the largest coal companies in the country) and Gary wanted to give money but said that if he did, it would forever taint the effort, so it was better for John to be poor and pure rather than well funded and tainted by association with “fossil fuels”

    I was also with John and Dick there in A wing the day of the tornado of November 15, 1989 when so many lives were lost in Huntsville. John and Dick were teaching 100 level atmospheric science then and we watched the tornado go by right before it touched down.

  23. Roy,
    Thank you for these words. They contain many lessons.
    In a similar vein, I recall the years after 1970 when the company-soon-to-be-employer discovered the Ranger Uranium deposits in the Top end of the Northern Territory. We explorers were unskilled in the arts of political wrangling and vastly under-prepared for what happened shortly after. Important people we had never heard of came crawling out of the woodwork, many from countries other than Australia. The main source was the United Nations, which promptly started putting pressure on our Federal Government to restrict our further success in finding more mines in the region. We had a Director of Parks and Wildlife from the Govt, a pommie professor, telling us what we could and could not do. New laws about aboriginal land rights were rapidly created and passed. The UN started the process of listing on the register of the world heritage, of a vast area surrounding our leases and licences. I took the Govt to the highest Court we had, to maintain our granted rights, but we eventually lost when they declared our problem too esoteric. We managed to keep the mine, which has been a major global producer in the years since then, but the promise we had discovered nearby seems lost forever in bureaucracy.
    The parallel I am drawing with your stories is that there were powerful people active long before we ordinary folk knew, who produced a lot of clout out of thin air. That is, the swamp that needs draining is a long time object whose roots go to places it is hard to find. Geoff S

  24. I did not realize the effort toward “decision based evidence making” began so early or openly

    Thanks for this Dr Spencer

  25. “In 1988, NASA’s James Hansen testified for then-Senator Al Gore, Jr., testimony which more than any single event thrust global warming into the collective consciousness of society. ”

    Bollocks. It was Margaret Thatcher pushing the idea at the UN that really made the idea take off. No-one in the real world paid any attention to Gore until then.

    • The inference being that ultimately it was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 that thrust it first and foremost into the popular consciousness which ultimately fired up the politicians and what Eisenhower warned about with the enviro-industrial complex. You show me where Maggie had that broad impact although you might say she planted a seed for the left needing a comeback strategy after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with their ideology in tatters.

      With the GFC kicking off in 2007 Gore’s polemic was in the right place at the right time but the longer you go on crying the end is nigh and we’re all doomed a giant asteroid or pandemic might come along to present a very real tipping point for humanity and blow your new kid on the block theory away. Will the Gummint printing presses save us all only time will tell but history and The Magic Pudding is not on its side- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_Pudding

  26. Great article Dr Spencer.

    I look forward to to an update to “Is the COVID-19 Economic Downturn Affecting Atmospheric CO2? Mauna Loa Data Say, Not Yet” published on WUWT on 22 March.

    “I will try to update this analysis every month as long as the issue is of sufficient interest.”

    There is a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue this connection. I will look forward to your monthly updates.

  27. Could Roy or someone else confirm that the Department of Energy now funds the UAH satellite temperature project?

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