Is NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio Scientific?

Brief Note by Kip Hansen — 26 June 2023

The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a unit called the Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS).  They have been pumping out a new visualization every Monday for two decades. 

Earlier this month they released a video:  Sea Level Through a Porthole It was originally released June 16, 2023 [ it was “updated”  June 20, 2023, though the web page does not say what the update consisted of ].

Nearly every media report used a title similar to:  “NASA has released a chilling animation showing just how far sea levels have risen in the three short decades…”

When I see a repetition of a title like that, I suspect that it originated in a press release – but I was unable to find the first use.  Here’s a screenshot of the opening screen of the video:

The video proceeds to show “rising sea level”, water lapping gently at the glass of the porthole, until the sea level has risen 3 1/2 inches in 30 years. 

The purpose of this Brief Note is in its title: Is the visualization “scientific”?  By this I mean:  Has it been produced in such a way as to more clearly communicate some scientific fact to the general public?  The alternative is that it has been produced to mislead or evoke emotions in the general public; for example,  it been produced as propaganda.

The first test is to examine the facts presented (italic quotes are from the SVS page)

“As the planet warms and polar ice melts, our global average sea level is rising. Although exact ocean heights vary due to local geography, climate over time, and dynamic fluid interactions with gravity and planetary rotation, scientists observe sea level trends by comparing measurements against a 20 year spatial and temporal mean reference. These visualizations use the visual metaphor of a submerged porthole window to observe how far our oceans rose between 1993 and 2022.”

          How big is a porthole?  In my experience (half a lifetime at sea) portholes in ships built through the 19th century generally had a glass area 8 to 18 inches in diameter, with glass from 1 to 2 inches thick.   Larger than 24 inches would be exceptional.   On the Titanic:  “The largest portholes were found in the first class … the size of the glass was about 24 inches maximum… The smallest portholes had a nine-inch glass diameter, mostly used in third class and crew accommodations in the bow and close to the waterline.”

The “porthole” in the visualization, according to the scale, is shown to be 40 inches.  Not realistic at all – it seems to be a size pulled out of a hat.

The “fright-value” of the visualization would have been far greater if they used the more common porthole size limited to 8 to 12 inches, similar to these shown on the HMS Royal Scotsman:

There is one row just above the rubbing strake (just above the green-painted waterline).  None, of course, are below the water line, and none would show water rising on the outside of the glass unless the ship was slowing sinking.

The use of a “porthole”, even if presented at an unusually, non-realistic, size, is an obvious attempt to invoke fear of sinking into the sea or fear of rising water – childishly transparent.

And the amount of “sea level rise” depicted?  That is a controversy.  If NASA’s SVS had used the long-term tide gauge measurements which show a steady near-perfectly linear SLR for over a century of 1.7-1.8 mm/yr,  to show 30 years of SLR, they would have shown only a 5.4 cm rise, or 2.13 inches.   But, being NASA, they chose to use the not-measured-but-calculated “satellite sea level rise” of 3.3 mm/yr.

The difference between the two SLR trends, tide gauges vs. satellite is too complicated to take up here, but simply put, the satellite “measurement” isn’t a measurement – but a complicated calculation that returns not a physical level of the sea surface (what normal people would call sea level) but is something quite different, eustatic sea level. as explained by the Sea Level Research Group at the University of Colorado.  [see end note for the full explanation] 

The SVS animation shows the 3 ½ inches (about 90 mm) of the non-physical  eustatic sea level as if it were the level that the seas have actually risen in 30 years, which it is not. (again, see End Note)

Bottom Line: 

At least this one visualization is not scientific:  It uses an intended-to-frighten unrealistic premise (sea surface rising as if seen through a porthole of a sinking ship), uses a very out-of-scale size for a porthole, and uses the Eustatic Sea Level rise – which is not a rise in a physical level — in place of actual sea level rise.

But I am happy to admit that in general, the surfaces of the world’s ocean have been rising as the world has warmed coming up out of the Little Ice Age at about NOAA’s  long-term linear figure for SLR, about 1.7 to 1.8 mm/yr.  (see here).

If NASA’s SVS had wanted to be realistic and scientific, they could have used my animation below—it shows 30 years of Sea Level Rise at the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial at Battery Park New York:  It takes 15 seconds (if it doesn’t run or have a play arrow, open it in a new tab and watch) Its 15-second length will seem like forever:

Oh, you didn’t see it?  I added in the last image a small vertical red bar, its very small, up and to the left of the monument plaque, which is the amount that local relative sea level has actually risen at The Battery in New York, about 3.4 inches/87 mm.  It is lost in the blackened surface of the sea wall caused by the rising and falling of the tides.

The little red bar includes 1.6 in/40 mm of negative vertical land movement (subsidence, the land moving downward). Only 1.8 inches (47 mm) of that barely discernible change is the surface of the sea rising.

# # # # #

END NOTE:  What do they mean when they use GMSL in relation to satellite measurements?

“The term “global mean sea level” in the context of our research [determining GMSL using satellites]  is defined as the area-weighted mean of all of the sea surface height anomalies measured by the altimeter in a single, 10-day satellite track repeat cycle.  It can also be thought of as the “eustatic sea level.” The eustatic sea level is not a physical sea level (since the sea levels relative to local land surfaces vary depending on land motion and other factors), but it represents the level if all of the water in the oceans were contained in a single basin. Changes to this eustatic level are caused by changes in total ocean water mass (e.g., ice sheet runoff), changes in the size of the ocean basin (e.g., GIA), or density changes of the water (e.g., thermal expansion). The time series of the GMSL estimates over the TOPEX and Jason missions beginning in 1992 to the present indicates a mostly linear trend after correction for inter-mission biases between instruments. The GMSL rate corrected for GIA represents changes in water mass and density in the oceans. These changes are thought to be predominantly driven by thermal expansion of the oceans and land ice melt (Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers).”

Googles shows that I have written quite a bit about this here at WUWT.

# # # # #

Author’s Comment:

NASA’s SVS has quite a team – producing visually impressive graphics, many of them videos.  Some of them are helpful, some of them are unhelpful.   Some of them are egregious pieces of propagandistic nonsense, seeming meant to obscure the facts rather than illuminate them.   This one was an easy target – silly in its conception and execution. 

I will be covering others in future Brief Notes

Propaganda has ALWAYS been forwarded with powerful emotion-evoking images.  Not a good thing when politics is substituted for science. (see the Crichton Lecture).

If you have a favorite example among NASA’s SVS misleading visualizations, please mention it in comments.

Thanks for reading.

# # # # #

5 24 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joseph Zorzin
June 27, 2023 2:20 pm

Next time I go to NYC I’m going to visit that Memorial! I wasn’t aware of it.

don k
June 27, 2023 2:24 pm

Kip: Did the end note get lost somewhere? Both the links are clickable, but ignored

June 27, 2023 2:31 pm

“As the planet warms and the polar ice melts ….. ”

I almost stopped reading at that point.
Almost all of the polar ice that melts is floating so the melting doesn’t affect sea level. ( See Mr. Archimedes. )

Regarding the size of portholes, a fire officer at the Port of Leith once watched a ship on fire where the portholes were too small to allow anyone inside to escape, and he watched, and listened to, several seamen die with their heads out of the portholes while they burnt to death. He made it his life’s work to ensure that all portholes in new ships were wide enough for people to escape through.

Oldseadog. (17 years at sea with 5 as Master, followed by 22 years as estuary pilot – 39 years in uniform.)

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 28, 2023 11:19 am

Kip, I know very little about warships of the Navy, most of the modern ones don’t have windows of any kind, but on British merchant ships now those areas where a porthole is designated as an official escape route they are of a specified size which allows people to exit through them. Every cabin I lived in had a porthole or window big enough for this.
So yes the guy got his result.

Reply to  Oldseadog
June 27, 2023 3:28 pm

What a tragic event.
Horrible deaths for those poor sailors, and equally scarring for that fire officer.
How does anyone erase those images & sounds from their memories?

John Oliver
Reply to  Oldseadog
June 27, 2023 4:46 pm

Yes one of many tragic events due to portholes being small small to escape out of. Really frustrating that the issue was nt with.

John Oliver
Reply to  John Oliver
June 27, 2023 4:48 pm

to small- not regulated to 24inches, what a shame

Rud Istvan
June 27, 2023 2:39 pm

Nice note Kip.
A NASA ‘science’ addendum. Whether tide gauge or sattelite, SLR is measured in low single digit (2-3) mm/year. But the technical manual for Jason 3 says its accuracy (because of wave, atmospheric moisture, and gravitational geoid complexities) is about 3.8cm. The newest bird, Sentinel 6, omitted this detail from its tech manual. But when NASA announced the operating product, the more delayed ‘better’ of the two had an accuracy of 3.4cm. Details in my previous posts here on Jason 3 and Sentinel 6.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 27, 2023 4:01 pm

But if you take 10,000 readings your accuracy improves by the square root of the number of readings…..oops… radar is already taking the the readings a few giga-times per seconds…..umm….real problems to state a couple of mm accuracy unless you are a very amateur and blissfully happy instrument person…plus “moon tides” move the Earth’s ground surface up and down about a foot per day, and the DORIS ground based reference stations ride that wave, which has some inconsistency in satellite soundings due to differing water heights of ocean tides and storm surges on the other side of the planet from the satellite…Even the stated 3.4 cm accuracy is wishful thinking.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 28, 2023 5:49 am

When the error bar is 10X the measured variable, what kind of information are you actually getting?

Reply to  Rud Istvan
July 6, 2023 5:14 am

The biggest bar to sea level accuracy is the length of the microwave wavelength generated by the satellite.
What is also key to that measurement is that microwave bounced back to the satellite. Microwave wavelength times 2.

June 27, 2023 3:42 pm

If this is a porthole in a ship, either the ship is sinking…
… or Al Gore has just come on board.

Reply to  bnice2000
June 28, 2023 12:26 am

I was just about to make the same comment. If this porthole is supposed to be attached to a ship then it wouldn’t be showing any change in sea-level at all! Poor choice in visualisation or a profound example of NASA staff not understanding basic physics?

Reply to  PariahDog
June 29, 2023 11:30 am

NASA does space things, not underwater things. Maybe they just don’t know how ships float.

June 27, 2023 4:03 pm

Kip, you are far too kind to the scoundrels at NASA. It is not good enough that they tell the truth sometimes. They are spending my money, I demand the truth at all times in plain English that anyone can understand.

Chris Hanley
June 27, 2023 4:38 pm

The sea level over time has never been static, if not rising what should it be doing?
The sea level as observed at tide gauges has been rising at a more or less constant rate well before human CO2 emissions were at all significant.
A rational response would be that future investment in capital works land use etc. ought to take an assumed sea level rise into consideration along with construction of levees tide barriers and the like where and when necessary.
Relying on a ‘green new deal’ having any effect would be insane.

Reply to  Chris Hanley
June 28, 2023 8:19 am

At 2 mm/year, sea levels rise at about 8 inches per century, so building an 8-inch high seawall around a city (or adding 8 inches to an existing seawall) in 100 years is definitely feasible, if its builders are allowed to burn diesel fuel in their earth-moving machines.

In response to the devastating hurricane of 1900, the city of Galveston, TX built a 25-foot high seawall completed in 1905, and earth-moving equipment available then was not nearly as powerful as it is now.

So, if it was possible to build seawalls at a rate of 5 vertical feet per year over a century ago, building seawalls at a rate of 8 inches per century (about 0.0067 feet per year) should be relatively easy, and a lot cheaper than trying to run the entire country on windmills and solar panels.

Izaak Walton
June 27, 2023 5:08 pm

It is very unclear what exactly you are complaining about here. It seems that you main concern is that the “porthole” used by NASA is 40 inches wide whereas the portholes on the titanic were between 8 and 18 inches wide. Perhaps you missed the bit where it is stated that it is a “visual metaphor”. And metaphors by their very definition are not meant to be taken literally.

Other than that it is a completely accurate representation of the corresponding data set. The caption states that
The blue mark on the ruler shows the exact measurements of the Integrated Multi-Mission Ocean Altimeter Data for Climate Research.”

Now you might not like this data set but again that doesn’t mean that people can’t or shouldn’t attempt to visualise it. And if you don’t like the porthole metaphor NASA have also made a video of the same data without it. So you can take your pick of using the raw data, or a video with or without a circular aperture.

Izaak Walton
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 27, 2023 11:41 pm

the visualisation is of a particular dataset. Which is as you state measures a fairly abstract quantity namely anomalies in the eustatic sea level. Making a more realistic depiction would thus be less scientific since what is being measured is very abstract to begin with.

Again you appear to be having trouble with the concept of a metaphor. Google has this definition “A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea”. Note the key phrase “isn’t literally true”. So complaining about the size of the circle is completely missing the point.

And the sea rises everywhere not just where it meets the land. The distance between the surface of the ocean and the centre of the earth is increasing which counts as sea level rise. The rate of sea level rise at any particular point on the shore is very different since the land is still rebounding from the last ice age. So depicting eustatic sea level rise using a graphic like your suggested one is more misleading since that suggests what is being depicted is a local effect and not a global one.

Reply to  Izaak Walton
June 28, 2023 2:10 am

Izzy likes meaningless pictures and animations.

Try Daffy Duck or something next time …

At least it doesn’t pretend to be intelligent.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 28, 2023 8:32 am

Well in your use of a ‘sea side feature’ you focus on the average of the tide, people would be more likely to worry about the high tide, so why didn’t you show that? Take Key Largo where a King tide results in flooding for about 10 weeks, so they now have ‘No Wake’ signs on the roads there.

Reply to  Izaak Walton
June 27, 2023 7:56 pm

If Izzy is so unaware that he doesn’t realise that a porthole in a ship wouldn’t actually show any sea level change unless being loaded…

… no-one can help him !

Real sea level rise of 1.7-1.8mm/year.. is that SCARY or what !!!

I can understand completely that he is conned by a low-level animation, though.

Reply to  Izaak Walton
June 27, 2023 8:01 pm

What a terrible metaphor! Portholes are in ships! Ships float! If you notice water rising in your porthole, your bloody ship is sinking! The metaphorical message is “CACC, abandon ship!”

Reply to  hiskorr
June 29, 2023 11:32 am

Now, why should NASA know that about ships? They do space things.

June 27, 2023 5:39 pm

1.7mm/yr sounds about right. The tidal gauge at Fremantle in Western Australia, one of the world’s longest continuous measurement sites, has averaged 1.7mm over the last 120 years. Its data can be accessed online to verify this.

Reply to  Graeme4
June 27, 2023 7:59 pm

Sydney’s Fort Denison shows less than half of that for high tide.

fort denison.png
John Oliver
June 27, 2023 6:04 pm

I recall some wreck divers in the great lakes finding a Indian village under water offshore in the great lakes. Was fascinating the time frame of inhabitants right here in North America has seen a lot of water level climate change long before the fossil fuel era. Now has anybody got me the most recent pothole regs/ guidelines? I’m stuck in “ means of escape” relative to ship size in tonnage.

John Oliver
Reply to  John Oliver
June 27, 2023 6:05 pm

Porthole. darn it

Reply to  John Oliver
June 27, 2023 8:00 pm

Pretty sure there are no regs on potholes around my area.

As many, and as big as possible seems to be the rule. !

June 27, 2023 8:04 pm

30 years and it moved just an inch up the window – we’re supposed to be affected by this, panicked into action?

I’m surprised how understated it is – usually they try to exaggerate and hyperbole everything – they could easily have used a typical 8″ pothole and showed the water going half way up… even though the real rise would only be about 54mm.

June 27, 2023 9:39 pm

When writers talk about charts and photos and papers being biased, they’re talking about the authors of those charts and photos and papers being biased. It would be difficult for the visualization studio to be anything but human.

(Some day, AI might write itself. I think it would be difficult for it to remove its original human imprint.)

spangled drongo
June 28, 2023 2:25 am

Kip, you have, no doubt, seen this paper of the relative sea-level rise and land subsidence in Oceania from tide gauge and satellite GPS, and I was wondering if there is a similar one for the whole world.According to this paper there is virtually no SLR and no acceleration in more than half the world’s oceans:

June 28, 2023 2:47 am
Mark Whitney
June 28, 2023 5:58 am

That’s nothing compared to the recent “What if CO2 was visible?” video. NASA has always been a great engineering exercise, but for science, it is just another government lapdog.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 28, 2023 8:37 am

Fairly obvious, shows where the increase in CO2 from different sources during the year ends up.

Andy Pattullo
June 28, 2023 8:01 am

Abandon ship!! We’re all going to drown. Here in Calgary 1000 M above sea level, it will take a while. I probably have time for another coffee.

Harvey B
June 29, 2023 4:52 am

As soon as I saw the NASA visualisation in the news I headed over to NOAA’s site and downloaded the sea level data to check as I thought the amount quoted was ridiculous. How do they get away with such lies?

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by MonsterInsights