Missing Context and the Warmest Year On Record

Numerous headlines over the last few days have trumpeted NOAA’s announcement that 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States. In my opinion, most of these news stories have left out some important context that betrays a bit of a bias.

Let us assume that temperatures can be “averaged” over space and time and that meaningful numbers of such averages can be calculated. It is true that NOAA calculated a record average temperature for the lower 48 states during 2012. It is even striking that the average was a full degree above the previous record, considering that the entire record of a hundred or so years only spans a few degrees.

This information is heralded by the media as just another data point in a long line of data points that proves that the earth is warming. Indeed, if one only read one of these articles – or worse, only saw the headlines – one might easily draw that conclusion.

What About Alaska?

But let us pay closer attention to this particular average. It concerns the “contiguous” United States, which excludes Alaska and Hawaii. Little mention is made of these other states. It just so happens that Alaska had a particularly cold 2012 – the 11th coolest in its 95-year record, to be precise.

Every news article does not leave this out. Scientific American gives one of its fifteen paragraphs to the state: “There was one notable national exception, however: far-flung Alaska, which experienced its 11th-coolest year since records there began in 1918.” This is, sandwiched, of course, between many more, larger paragraphs about how alarmingly hot everything else was.

Alaska is not just a random state, either. It’s the largest state by far, with over one-fifth of the area of the contiguous United States. Yet its particularly cold year warrants not even a mention by Discovery, National Geographic, the New York Times, or countless others.

In fact, right now if I do a Google News search for “2012 hottest record,” I get 116,000 results. If I add “Alaska” to that search I only get 9,970 – and a good number of those are merely helpfully explaining that Alaska is not part of the “contiguous” US. Some mention as lightly as possible that “Alaska was cooler” than average. The overwhelming majority ignore it completely while highlighting as much as possible the record warmth experienced by the contiguous United States.

What About The World?

The contiguous United States only covers 1.58% of the world’s surface. We just saw that another smaller but still decently-sized portion of the Earth’s surface, Alaska, had a 2012 which saw not a #1 hot year but a very different #84 hot year. It is not immediately clear whether the land between Alaska and the contiguous United States might have been closer to record heat or near-record cold, and global warming advocates often warn against cherry-picking data to support opposing causes.

NOAA will not release their global temperature average for several more days, but based on their calculations through November, it seems likely that 2012 will come in as the #8 hot year, or close to it – another non-record bar on the chart that seems to show no increase in global heat over the last decade:

global-anomalies-2012-novThis little detail – even more relevant than the Alaska data – is given a single paragraph mention in the Scientific American and NYT accounts, but none at all in the Discovery and National Geographic and likely thousands of other accounts.

Certainly none of this proves that the earth is not generally warming, or that the record averages recorded in the contiguous United States are not evidence of that. However, I do find it interesting that information which might be seen to weaken the case for such a claim is often left out entirely or mentioned only cursorily in the vast majority of news accounts, even though such information provides (in my opinion) greater and necessary context.

As to whether such temperature “averages” are useful or calculable at all, I certainly have my doubts, although I am by no means qualified to express them. I do find it interesting, though, that not a single state temperature maximum was broken last year, and only one has even been tied in this century which we are increasingly told is both increasingly warm and extreme. I also find it interesting this is also true of the continent temperature maximums. (Australia recently broke its continent’s daily “average,” but it seems that forecasts of a new single maximum are off the table, at least for now.)

Perhaps that is all naive cherry-picking in the other direction, and these calculated “averages” of constantly fluctuating highs and lows and mids across thousands of temperature stations across entire regions are more meaningful than single (but more visibly measurable) maximum data points.

But even if we assume that such reported averages are both accurate and meaningful, I still believe it is important to consider everything that the averages are telling us, not just about the contiguous United States, but also about Alaska, and the entire world. Unfortunately, many in the media are failing to do so.

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