The U.K.’s top climate official said 2014 was not the warmest on record, tying with 2010 for record heat — a huge walk back from previous government agencies claims of record warmth last year.
“Provisional full-year global mean temperature figures show 2014 was one of the warmest years in a record dating back to 1850,” according to the U.K. Met Office, the country’s top climate agency. The Met Office found that 2014 was only 0.56 degrees Celsius above the 1961 to 1990 average.
“Nominally this ranks 2014 as the joint warmest year in the record, tied with 2010, but the uncertainty ranges mean it’s not possible to definitively say which of several recent years was the warmest,” the Met Office cautioned.
The U.K. climate agency’s cautious announcement stands in stark contrast to ones made by other governmental weather agencies. The Japan Meteorological Agency first announced that 2014 was the warmest on record earlier this month, quickly followed by U.S. climate agencies also declaring 2014 to be the hottest year ever.
“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
But such pronouncements were criticized by scientists skeptical of man-made global warming, who argued there was no statistically significant difference between 2014 and other record years.
“With 2014 essentially tied with 2005 and 2010 for hottest year, this implies that there has been essentially no trend in warming over the past decade,” said Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This ‘almost’ record year does not help the growing discrepancy between the climate model projections and the surface temperature observations.”
Furthermore, satellite temperature records show that 2015 was nowhere near the warmest on record. The University of Alabama, Huntsville satellite dataset ranked 2014 as the third-warmest on record while the Remote Sensing Systems satellite dataset ranked 2014 as the sixth warmest on record.
“Uncertainties in the estimates of global temperature are larger than the differences between the warmest years. This limits what we can say about rankings of individual years,” said Colin Morice, a climate scientist at the Met Office. “We can say with confidence that 2014 is one of ten warmest years in the series and that it adds to the set of near-record temperatures we have seen over the last two decades.”
So why the uncertainty? The Met Office’s global temperature data, like all government climate agency data, relies on “temperature measurements from around 1,600 observation sites over land and from ships and buoys at sea.”
The uncertainty comes from the fact that these measurement sites only cover a small portion of the Earth, meaning temperature has to be extrapolated over large areas with no thermometers. Further data adjustments are made with computer models to correct for measurement biases and errors inherent in temperature readers.
“It’s important to look over long timescales to see how human influence has affected global climate,” said Met Office scientist Peter Stott. “Looking at three decades or more, we can observe a clear warming trend which is reflected in the near-record temperatures we have seen in recent years.”
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