NASA’s much-ballyhooed data showing that 1998 was the warmest year on record for the Earth the USA was, uh, wrong. A blogger found a Y2K bug in the data algorithm, NASA climatologist James Hansen, and NASA has now issued corrected data. The warmest year on record for the Earth the USA: 1934 – 1998 was the second-warmest. The third warmest: 1921. Michael Asher at DailyTech.com tells the story of how blogger Steve McIntyre, who operates the site climateaudit.org, found the error and forced NASA to admit it.

While inspecting historical temperature graphs, he noticed a strange discontinuity, or “jump” in many locations, all occurring around the time of January, 2000. These graphs were created by NASA’s Reto Ruedy and James Hansen (who shot to fame when he accused the administration of trying to censor his views on climate change). Hansen refused to provide McKintyre with the algorithm used to generate graph data, so McKintyre reverse-engineered it. The result appeared to be a Y2K bug in the handling of the raw data.

McKintyre notified the pair of the bug; Ruedy replied and acknowledged the problem as an “oversight” that would be fixed in the next data refresh. NASA has now silently released corrected figures

This is the second time this year that NASA has backtracked on claims that a recent year was the warmest on record.

Will the mainstream media report the corrected story with as much gusto as they initially reported the claim that 1998 was the warmest on record? Doubtful. But they should. Good public policy can not be made on bad data. The public needs to know that NASA’s big “evidence” of a surge in global temperatures was faulty.

See also: Asher’s post detailing growing concerns about the inability to validate the accuracy of information coming from the National Climatic Data Center’s network of 1,221 temperature-reading sensors from which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency gets the data it says shows a gradual increase in the Earth’s temperature.

Two months ago, I reported on an effort to validate this network. A volunteer group headed by meteorologist Anthony Watts had found serious problems. Not only did sites fail to meet the NCDC’s requirements, but encroaching development had put many in ridiculously unsuitable locations — on hot black asphalt, next to trash burn barrels, beside heat exhaust vents, even attached to hot chimneys and above outdoor grills.

Soon thereafter, a Seattle radio station interviewed the head of the NCDC, Dr. Thomas Peterson, informed him of the effort and quizzed him about the problems. Three days later, the NCDC removed all website access to station site locations, citing “privacy concerns.” Without this data (which had been public for years), the validation effort was blocked. No more stations could be located.

Clearly, there are problems at NASA and NOAA when it comes to gathering and calculating global warming-related data.

The private sector ought to demand the government revamp the temperature sensor network, with input from private-sector scientists and academia, to ensure that the data being collected is accurate from each sensor, and broadly accurate as well. The problem is that even if such a network of sensors was installed today, its data would still be compared to historical data from the current problematic network. Still, is it too much to ask that global warming policy be based on facts that we can trust?

That isn’t to say that if accurate data properly collected showed global warming wasn’t occurring that we shouldn’t still be moving toward alternatives to using fossil fuels. There are many reasons we should ditch fossil fuels as it becomes possible to do so, ranging from pollution to geopolitical concerns to economic concerns. Simply put, if we used much less oil it would bad for the terrorists and the oil-rich Middle Eastern regimes that harbor, fund, support or otherwise encourage them. If we used much less oil it would matter much less to our economy how rapidly China’s surging economic growth drove up its oil consumption. And burning fossil fuels pollutes the air.

Cleaner technologies such as wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel cells offer the possibility of improving our economy, our foreign policy and our air, and our public policies ought to encourage their development and commercialization to the greatest extent possible. But the current fear of global warming is leading to bad policy as well – Congress’ desire to lavish the corn-based ethanol industry with billions of dollars in subsidies being a prime example.

If that rush to bad policy is being driven by bad data, we need to know that. NASA and the National Climatic Data Center need to get the data right. Now.

Update: Coincidentally – or perhaps not – ClimateAudit.com, the website of the blogger who found the error in the global warming data, has fallen under a major Denial-of-Service attack (DoS attack) on its hosting company. Ace of Spades’ report on the mainstream media’s virtual blackout of coverage on the NASA data error (as opposed to its loud trumpeting of the claim that 1998 was the warmest year on record), has details on the DoS attack in the comments.

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