BoM faces storm over weather data inaccuracies
- The Australian
- 12:00AM August 3, 2017
- Environment Editor
Bush meteorologist Lance Pidgeon had hard evidence it was cold near Goulburn in the early hours of July 2 this year because his cold water pipes froze, bursting in the wall and breaking the toilet. To be certain, Pidgeon checked the Bureau of Meteorology website and saw the temperature had plunged to minus 10.4C.
“But then I saw something truly bizarre,” Pidgeon says. The temperature recording on BoM’s website adjusted itself to minus 10C and then disappeared from view.
That early morning observation by Pigeon has forced BoM to admit shortcomings at an undisclosed number of cold weather locations within the automatic weather station network.
A complete review is being undertaken of the network equipment and BoM’s temperature data handling. It is the biggest public scandal for BoM since furious debate was sparked three years ago over its treatment of historic and contemporary temperature records to compile its new homogenised national temperature data series known as ACORN-SAT.
For an agency that screams from the rooftops every time the mercury nudges to the slightest record high, losing a half a degree Celsius here and there at the lower extremities is a pretty poor look.
It has led again to claims that ideology has gotten the better of good scientific practice.
The bureau’s chief executive, Andrew Johnson, is adamant the bureau has not been tampering with the lower temperature record. But the Pidgeon affair, which moved past Goulburn to also raise questions about the Snowy Mountains thermometer at Thredbo Top and also Tasmania, has left BoM open to claims it is working to ensure the dominant narrative of rising temperatures due to climate change remains intact.
In a statement, the bureau says it “holds the integrity of our weather observations and climate data to the highest possible standards”.
“The bureau rejects allegations aired in some media outlets that it has sought to tamper with temperature data,” BoM says.
Johnson says BoM is also replacing as a priority hardware in four locations other than Goulburn and Thredbo Top. They are Tuggeranong in the ACT, Butlers Gorge and Fingal in Tasmania and Mount Baw Baw in Victoria where the climate record indicates it might be reasonably expected to reach below minus 10C.
William Kininmonth, a former head of BoM’s National Climate Centre, says he is puzzled that after decades of service the bureau now claims the automatic stations are not fit for purpose at some cold weather locations.
“My understanding is a lot of testing was done before the automatic weather stations were installed in all different sorts of conditions,” Kininmonth says.
“Why this is happening now, unless they have changed their manufacturers who they get them from, I don’t know.
“I would have thought minus 10 would have been well within their scope. They take automatic weather stations down to Macquarie Island and Antarctica, I can’t understand this at all.
“It seems to me they have some sort of automatic collection system in the computer; once the data comes in, they check on it then. I don’t know why they would be doing that at that stage.”
BoM strongly rejects any suggestion of manipulation.
Nonetheless, the handling of temperature data is a red-hot issue with claims and counterclaims dogging the world’s premier meteorological agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA in the US, and Britain’s Met Office.
Reports of the latest controversy at BoM have quickly and widely circulated around the world.
But for now BoM has escaped a full independent evaluation of its temperature data handling. The bureau will conduct an in-house review with assistance from at least two outside participants.
BoM narrowly escaped a forensic audit of its temperature handling methods for its national temperature data set ACORN-SAT after concerns were raised. Anomalies highlighted at the time included missing data and changes to temperature trends at some stations and areas from cooling to warming after homogenisation in 2014.
Documents released under freedom of information reveal former prime minister Tony Abbott’s department had canvassed using a taskforce to carry out “due diligence” on BoM’s climate records at the time.
But the push was defeated by then environment minister Greg Hunt, who sought to protect the reputation and integrity of the institution. “It is important to note that public trust in the bureau’s data and forecasts, particularly as they relate to bushfires and cyclones, is paramount,” Hunt wrote at the time.
In the context of the latest BoM controversy, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg says: “Public confidence must be maintained in the integrity and effectiveness of data collection and quality control of data observations.”
But he has stopped short of demanding an independent, public inquiry, insisting instead on independent outside participation in BoM’s in-house probe.