Sunday, February 12, 2017

Too fast or too slow?

The discussion around Karl et al., 2015 continues in certain segments of the media.

Last week, the allegations were that the paper was rushed to influence the Paris agreement. That the multi-year multi-party talks could be swayed by a single paper is of course pure bunkum (as an aside Bunkum arises from the behaviour of a politician from Buncombe County where NCEI is located). The Paris climate agreement was the culmination of thousands of individual studies and painstaking, careful, assessments of a wealth of scientific evidence that led to a conclusion by the governments of the world that action was imperative. That any single study was, or could ever be, a ‘clincher’ is pure fantasy. The weight and breadth of evidence is what convinced all parties and is the work of many thousands of experts.

This week, there has been a volte face (about face) and the allegation instead is that Karl et al. led to a delay in the release of ERSSTv4 which was ‘unacceptable’. You’ll forgive me for a second while I sweep up the remains of my shattered irony-meter strewn about over the floor.

Right, where was I? Well, firstly, the new allegation fundamentally clears up one allegation in that the ERSSTv4 product was in no sense experimental and had undergone full internal review as well as having (at the time) two peer-reviewed published papers describing it.

Huang et al. put out a technical paper, published in the Journal of Climate in February 2015, on the new dataset, accompanied by a paper describing its uncertainties by Liu et al.  The Huang et al. paper covered in detail the dataset specification.  It did not address the implications of the dataset related to temperature trends over the past several decades. It was a highly technical paper focused on explaining the details of new corrections to sea surface temperatures. It was not intended for general public communication.  

At the same time, NOAA and ISTI had in late 2014 released a major upgrade to monthly global land data holdings source that is updated each month in NOAA’s regular global temperature monitoring.  It has extra stations in many regions of the world and improved coverage , and that is why Karl et al. took advantage of this for a snapshot data set analysis that ended in 2014. The envisaged upgrade to GHCNM will regularly add new data and process these data through the existing land analysis processing suite.

Whenever NOAA puts out new data sets, that will be updated each month for tracking global temperatures they always get numerous questions that they have to be able to answer. So, NOAA waited on releasing this new ERSSTv4 data set until the Karl et al. paper was out because the Karl et al. paper presented the implications of the new corrections and new land data sources to previously reported trends appearing in prominent works such as the Fifth IPCC assessment including, but not limited to, the recent behaviour. NOAA took extra steps to ensure the impact of the new corrections and data could be readily explained. It took an extra 4 months to accomplish this. If the Karl et al. paper had not been in the pipeline, arguably NOAA would have had to write up a stand-alone paper to explain the implications of the updated data set, essentially the “Karl et al. paper.”

And there is still nothing in these process complaints that substantiates anything but high-quality science that has already been reproduced by other scientists in peer-reviewed scientific articles. Those studies validated NOAA's work. They validated the science, the data provided to them by NOAA, and the quality of the work.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Week of International Scientific Young Talents

A few months back I entered a competition to participate in a ‘week of scientific young talents’ in Paris. To my surprise a few weeks later I received an email letting me know I had won! Myself and two other Irish scientists were chosen by the French embassy to travel to Paris for a week of activities.

Scientists from Ireland, Portugal and Norway

The competition was organised by Universcience, a French organisation based in the Cité de Sciences et de l’Industrie and the Palais de la Découverte. Their goal is to encourage people to engage with science and scientific reasoning and to inspire people to be curious about the world around them. The prize was arranged to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Cité de Sciences and the 80th anniversary of the Palais de la Découverte this year. 
The Young Scientists outside the Palais de la Découverte

On arrival we were greeted by the organisers at the Cité de Sciences and introduced to the hugely varied group. 42 people from 26 countries spanning every continent. That evening we were treated to a screening of the movie ‘A Beautiful Planet’ in La Géode, an incredible 180 degree cinema which creates a truly immersive experience (and can induce minor motion sickness). The movie shows films of the Earth taken from the International Space Station and highlights the international collaboration of space agencies who transcend politics and borders to achieve common goals – an appropriate introduction to the week ahead!

La Géode - cinema sphere

On Monday we were given a private tour of the Cité de Sciences as it was closed to the public, allowing us free reign over the exhibitions and a chance to see how children learn in the kids section of the museum. This fun experience saw us playing with TV, water, robots, plants and ants. That evening we travelled as a group on the metro (easier said than done) to the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, where we had champagne and canapés with the Minister’s top aide and the president of Universcience, among others.
The scientists and dignitaries

On Tuesday we visited the headquarters of L’Oréal Paris, who co-sponsored the week. The morning consisted of a workshop on women in science with some fascinating discussions arising from all the different experiences of scientists from around the world. A luxurious lunch of sushi and French patisserie followed - where we all felt that we could get used to this kind of treatment. After lunch we toured the L’Oréal factory and learned about their outreach, manufacturing and development processes and met a lovely Irish woman called Maureen who showed us how hair dye lives up to what it says on the tin.  
Women in Science
Food, glorious food

Wednesday saw our first visit to the Palais de la Découverte, a beautiful building temporarily obscured by some scaffolding as they fix the roof. We visited the planetarium and while some toured the night sky, others took the opportunity to take a nap and sleep off the French wine from the night before. That afternoon all 42 young scientists presented our research projects in three minutes each. Topics included everything from climate change, engineering, computer science, fibre optics, biology, communication, chemistry, physics. medicine, and bird sperm analysis.

What am I doing? A very good question...
On Thursday we returned to the Cité de Sciences and participated in workshops about museology, spending the afternoon designing and building our own creations in the museum’s FabLab. In the evening we visited the Musée d’Orsay where we viewed the exhibitions in the gorgeous museum and had dinner in the petit salon with members of Universcience, L’Oréal and government representatives. Again, we felt we could get used to this treatment.

Petit Salon of the Musée d'Orsay


On Friday in the Cité de Sciences we listened to presentations on spatial physics, maths and magic, and climate change, before being transferred to the Musée de l’Homme where we saw the history of mankind, our current state, and where we are going in the future. We continued on to the Foundation Louis Vuitton to witness the collection of Sergei Schukin – ‘Icons of Modern Art’. The exhibition chronicled the development of modern art from impressionism to cubism, expertly explained by a guide from the Louis Vuitton foundation. 
Frank Gehry's original architectural drawing for the Foundation Louis Vuitton (seriously)

The finished building
That was sadly our last night in Paris and after a fantastic week, a quick look at the Eiffel tower, and stocking up on cheese - on Saturday morning we headed home. 
Obligatory selfie

I’d like to express a huge thank you to the all the staff of Universcience (particularly Flavie who was always there to help!), the French embassy in Ireland (FranceinIreland) for funding the programme and allowing three Irish people to go, and of course the 41 other young scientists who made the experience such a pleasure to be part of. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

On the Mail on Sunday article on Karl et al., 2015

There is an "interesting" piece (use of quotes intentional) in the Mail on Sunday today around the Karl et al., 2015 Science paper.

There are a couple of relevant pieces arising from Victor Venema and Zeke Hausfather already available which cover most of the science aspects and are worth a read. I'm adding some thoughts because I worked for three and a bit years in the NOAA group responsible in the build-up to the Karl et al. paper (although I had left prior to that paper's preparation and publication). I have been involved in and am a co-author upon all relevant underlying papers to Karl et al., 2015.

The 'whistle blower' is John Bates who was not involved in any aspect of the work. NOAA's process is very stove-piped such that beyond seminars there is little dissemination of information across groups. John Bates never participated in any of the numerous technical meetings on the land or marine data I have participated in at NOAA NCEI either in person or remotely. This shows in his reputed (I am taking the journalist at their word that these are directly attributable quotes) mis-representation of the processes that actually occured. In some cases these mis-representations are publically verifiable.

I will go through a small selection of these in the order they appear in the piece:

1. 'Insisting on decisions and scientific choices that maximised warming and minised documentation'

Dr. Tom Karl was not personally involved at any stage of ERSSTv4 development, the ISTI databank development or the work on GHCN algorithm during my time at NOAA NCEI. At no point was any pressure bought to bear to make any scientific or technical choices. It was insisted that best practices be followed throughout. The GHCN homogenisation algorithm is fully available to the public and bug fixes documented. The ISTI databank has been led by NOAA NCEI but involved the work of many international scientists. The databank involves full provenance of all data and all processes and code are fully documented. The paper describing the databank was held by the journal for almost a year (accepted October 2013, published September 2014) to allow the additional NOAA internal review processes to complete. The ERSSTv4 analysis also has been published in no fewer than three papers. It also went through internal review and approval processes including a public beta release prior to its release which occurred prior to Karl et al., 2015.

2. 'NOAA has now decided the sea dataset will have to be replaced and revised just 18 months after it was issued, because it used unreliable methods which overstated the speed of warming' 

While a new version of ERSST is forthcoming the reasoning is incorrect here. The new version arises because NOAA and all other centres looking at SST records are continuously looking to develop and refine their datasets. The ERSSTv4 development completed in 2013 so the new version reflects over 3 years of continued development and refinement. All datasets I have ever worked upon have undergone version increments. Measuring in the environment is a tough proposition - its not a repeatable lab experiment - and measurements were never made for climate. It is important that we continue to strive for better understanding and the best possible analyses of the imperfect measurements. That means being open to new, improved, analyses. The ERSSTv4 analysis was a demonstrable improvement on the prior version and the same shall be true in going to the next version once it also has cleared both peer-review and the NOAA internal process review checks (as its predecessor did).

3. 'The land temperature dataset used by the study was afflicted by devestating bugs in its software that rendered its findings unstable' (also returned to later in the piece to which same response applies)

The land data homogenisation software is publically available (although I understand a refactored and more user friendly version shall appear with GHCNv4) and all known bugs have been identified and their impacts documented. There is a degree of flutter in daily updates. But this does not arise from software issues (running the software multiple times on a static data source on the same computer yields bit repeatability). Rather it reflects the impacts of data additions as the algorithm homogenises all stations to look like the most recent segment. The PHA algorithm has been used by several other groups outside NOAA who did not find any devestating bugs. Any bugs reported during my time at NOAA were investigated, fixed and their impacts reported.

4. 'The paper relied on a preliminary alpha version of the data which was never approved or verified'

The land data of Karl et al., 2015 relied upon the published and internally process verified ISTI databank holdings and the published, and publically assessable homogenisation algorithm application thereto. This provenance satisfied both Science and the reviewers of Karl et al. It applied a known method (used operationally) to a known set of improved data holdings (published and approved).

5. [the SST increase] 'was achieved by dubious means'

The fact that SST measurements from ships and buoys disagree with buoys cooler on average is well established in the literature. See IPCC AR5 WG1 Chapter 2 SST section for a selection of references by a range of groups all confirming this finding. ERSSTv4 is an anomaly product. What matters for an anomaly product is relative homogeneity of sources and not absolute precision. Whether the ships are matched to buoys or buoys matched to ships will not affect the trend. What will affect the trend is doing so (v4) or not (v3b). It would be perverse to know of a data issue and not correct for it in constructing a long-term climate data record.

6. 'They had good data from buoys. And they threw it out [...]'

v4 actually makes preferential use of buoys over ships (they are weighted almost 7 times in favour) as documented in the ERSSTv4 paper. The assertion that buoy data were thrown away as made in the article is demonstrably incorrect.

7. 'they had used a 'highly experimental early run' of a programme that tried to combine two previously seperate sets of records' 

Karl et al used as the land basis the ISTI databank. This databank combined in excess of 50 unique underlying sources into an amalgamated set of holdings. The code used to perform the merge was publically available, the method published, and internally approved. This statement therefore is demonstrably false.

There are many other aspects of the piece that I disagree with. Having worked with the NOAA NCEI team involved in land and SST data analysis I can only say that the accusations in the piece do not square one iota with the robust integrity I see in the work and discussions that I have been involved in with them for over a decade.