NOAA scientists targeted by House GOP were right: The ocean is warming twice as fast as we thought

Scientists do science, and science wins.

The ocean is warming. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bob Edme
The ocean is warming. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bob Edme

Apparently, research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) isn’t all a sham.

A new study confirms that when NOAA scientists recalculated the ocean’s warming — finding that over the past 18 years, ocean temperatures have increased 0.22°F (0.12° C) increase per decade, rather than the previously thought .13°F (0.07° C) per decade — they were right.

The original findings, published in Science in 2015, came under intense scrutiny — not from other scientists, but from politicians. Specifically, the scientists involved in the study were targeted in a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee investigation, headed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).

“NOAA has failed to fully explain the conditions surrounding its process and procedures for adjusting upward temperature readings that eliminated the ‘pause’ in global warming,” Smith said at the time, issuing a series of subpoenas to the agency and drawing broad backlash from the scientific community.

In fact, not only is there no evidence of a conspiracy to produce politically popular data, the earth’s oceans are, in fact, warming nearly twice as fast as previously thought.

(At the time, NOAA “steadfastly refused” to submit emails pertaining to the study. The agency finally did respond to Smith’s subpoena after he removed a demand to see emails between scientists and limited the scope to staff at the agency. After a December 2015 press release announcing the document delivery, no further statements on the investigation were made by Smith or the committee.)

The new study confirming NOAA’s conclusion, published in Science Advances on Wednesday by independent scientists based at the University of California Berkeley, broke out the data in a different way, allowing researchers to more clearly identify temperature changes.

Specifically, they found that data from ships wasn’t accurately reflecting the change in ocean temperatures.

The problem with NOAA’s pre-2015 conclusion came from the fact that the ocean’s temperature is recorded in several different ways. There are research buoys, satellite readings, special devices known as Argo floats, which sit slightly below the water’s surface, emerging every 10 days with new data, and ship records, which generally are read at intake valves in ship engine rooms.

But different data collection methods come up with different readings, Zeke Hausfather, the study’s lead author, told ThinkProgress.

“They weren’t cooking the books in any way. They weren’t trying to meet policy goals.” — Zeke Hausfather

For years, NOAA used a formula that weighted boat and buoy data the same (until 2014’s infamous recalculation). But because boats have changed — cargo ships are bigger, for starters — it seems that the data coming from the boats wasn’t accurately capturing the change in water temperatures.

“A lot of this [apparent global warming] pause seems to be caused by the change in our data collection in ships,” he said. In fact, many scientists agree that NOAA’s work was instrumental in disproving the “global warming pause” theory that had attracted the attention of climate science deniers.

Think of NOAA data collection like using a tree to calculate wind speeds. If you use 10-foot trees for 30 years, then slowly start including data from 50-foot trees, your data set will not be as accurate as it would be if you had used the same height tree the whole time. In fact, you might see a big uptick in wind speeds, even when no change in wind took place. (Wind speeds at the tops of 50-foot trees will be significantly higher than at the tops of 10-foot trees.)

Meanwhile, though, you have kites that fly at a consistent 40-foot height, all the time, everywhere. That data is consistently collected and more easily comparable across locations and time.

Wouldn’t it make sense to only compare kite data to kite data?

That’s exactly what Hausfather and his colleagues did. They analyzed NOAA’s data in chunks: buoy data, satellite data, and Argo data.

“We looked at three independent, separate sets of data,” Hausfather said. “They all agree with the new NOAA record.”

Hausfather’s analysis raises questions about why the House Science Committee went after NOAA scientists directly with subpoenas.

“The best way to go about challenging them is to ask other scientists to look into their work,” Hausfather said. “They weren’t cooking the books in any way. They weren’t trying to meet policy goals. They were doing the best they could dealing with messy data.”

The House Science Committee, though, has yet to be convinced.