A Critical Review of Global Surface Temperature Data Products
75 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2010
Date Written: August 5, 2010
There are three main global temperature histories: the combined CRU-Hadley record (HADCRU), the NASA-GISS (GISTEMP) record, and the NOAA record. All three global averages depend on the same underlying land data archive, the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN). Because of this reliance on GHCN, its quality deficiencies will constrain the quality of all derived products.
The number of weather stations providing data to GHCN plunged in 1990 and again in 2005. The sample size has fallen by over 75% from its peak in the early 1970s, and is now smaller than at any time since 1919. The collapse in sample size has increased the relative fraction of data coming from airports to about 50 percent (up from about 30 percent in the 1970s). It has also reduced the average latitude of source data and removed relatively more high-altitude monitoring sites.
Oceanic data are based on sea surface temperature (SST) rather than marine air temperature (MAT). All three global products rely on SST series derived from the ICOADS archive. ICOADS observations were primarily obtained from ships that voluntarily monitored SST. Prior to the post-war era, coverage of the southern oceans and polar regions was very thin. Coverage has improved partly due to deployment of buoys, as well as use of satellites to support extrapolation. Ship-based readings changed over the 20th century from bucket-and-thermometer to engine-intake methods, leading to a warm bias as the new readings displaced the old. Until recently it was assumed that bucket methods disappeared after 1941, but this is now believed not to be the case, which may necessitate a major revision to the 20th century ocean record. There is evidence that SST trends overstate nearby MAT trends.
The quality of data over land, namely the raw temperature data in GHCN, depends on the validity of adjustments for known problems due to urbanization and land-use change. The adequacy of these adjustments has been tested in three different ways, with two of the three finding evidence that they do not suffice to remove warming biases.
The overall conclusion of this report is that there are serious quality problems in the surface temperature data sets that call into question whether the global temperature history, especially over land, can be considered both continuous and precise. Users should be aware of these limitations, especially in policy-sensitive applications.
Keywords: Global temperature, data quality, sampling discontinuities
JEL Classification: C42, Q20
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation