In 2007, Watts launched the Surface Stations project, whose mission is to create a publicly available database of photographs of weather stations, along with their metadata, in response to what he described as, "a massive failure of bureaucracy to perform something so simple as taking some photographs and making some measurements and notes of a few to a few dozen weather stations in each state". Watts informed radio and television host Glenn Beck that he began the undertaking, wondering if the composition of weather shelter paint had "made a difference" to thermometer readings and, consequently, the U.S. temperature record. The project relies on volunteers to gather the data. Volunteers estimate the siting, usage and other conditions of weather stations in NOAA's Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) and grade them for their compliance with the standards published in the organization's Climate Reference Network Site Handbook.
By 2009, the project had documented more than 860 stations using more over 650 volunteers. In a report entitled Is the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Reliable?, published by the Heartland Institute, Watts concluded that "the errors in the record exceed by a wide margin the purported rise in temperature during the twentieth century." Watts also suggested that the adjustments made by scientists to the raw data tended to expand the problems caused by the siting issue.
In response to the issues raised in Watts' report, researchers at the National Climatic Data Center analyzed the temperature trends derived from stations that Watts had identified as poorly sited and compared these data with stations Watts had identified as well-sited. Their paper, titled "On the reliability of the U.S. Surface Temperature Record" was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres in 2010. The researchers concluded that average temperature trends were not artificially inflated by station site quality, however they did find, "a mean bias associated with poor exposure sites relative to good exposure sites". This bias was apparently due to the data adjustments Watts had criticized but the bias did not show the expected artificial warm trend (from the photographic and eyewitness evidence gathered in Watts report). In fact, the poorly sited stations showed a significant artificial cool trend in maximum temperatures. The researchers noted, "instrument changes have led to an artificial negative (“cool”) bias in maximum temperatures and only a slight positive (“warm”) bias in minimum temperatures....his bias is consistent with previously documented changes associated with the widespread conversion to electronic sensors in the USHCN during the last 25 years." The researchers concluded:
- "Given the now extensive documentation by surfacestations.org that the exposure characteristics of many USHCN stations are far from ideal, it is reasonable to question the role that poor exposure may have played in biasing CONUS temperature trends. However, our analysis and the earlier study by Peterson illustrate the need for data analysis in establishing the role of station exposure characteristics on temperature trends no matter how compelling the circumstantial evidence of bias may be. In other words, photos and site surveys do not preclude the need for data analysis, and concerns over exposure must be evaluated in light of other changes in observation practice such as new instrumentation."
In February 2010, Joseph Abrams of Fox News reported that Watts by then had compiled data from 80% of the National Climate Data Center's weather station network. Watts argued that the Menne et al. analysis was conducted using data from only 43% of the stations and that a more complete data set would furnish different results.
As a co-author with climatologists (including John Christy and Roger A. Pielke, Sr.) on a paper with Souleymane Fall as lead author, Watts conducted further analyses of temperature trends reported by weather stations. Using data from 82.5% of the North American surface stations, they found, "Temperature trend estimates vary according to site classification, with poor siting leading to an overestimate of minimum temperature trends and an underestimate of maximum temperature trends, resulting in particular in a substantial difference in estimates of the diurnal temperature range trends." While, overall mean temperature trends were found to be nearly identical between poorly sited and well-sited stations, "The opposite-signed differences of maximum and minimum temperature trends are similar in magnitude, so that the overall mean temperature trends are nearly identical across site classifications."
Watts has continued his analyses of the Surface Station Project data, and has made available on his blog site a "pre-print draft discussion paper", intended for submission to a journal. The draft, titled An area and distance weighted analysis of the impacts of station exposure on the U.S. Historical Climatology Network temperatures and temperature trends, was announced in a press release posted on WUWT on July 29, 2012. Jeremy Kaplan of Fox News reported that Watts claimed that his results show the planet warming at just 0.155 degrees Celsius per decade, rather than the 0.309 C per decade cited by the government. Graham Lloyd of The Australian said that according to Watts, the new analysis shows reported 1979-2008 US temperature trends had been spuriously doubled and more than 92% of the over-estimation was due to erroneous upward adjustments by NOAA of well-sited stations. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times noted that the satellite data that Watts had previously stood behind indicated a warming over the U.S. closer to NOAA’s estimate. Climate Audit blogger Steven McIntyre said he was puzzled about being listed as a co-author of the paper, qualifing his involvement as "very last minute and limited" and admits to not having "parsed" parts of the Watts study. Both McIntyre and Howard University chemistry professor Josh Halpern commented that Watts had not made TOBS bias corrections.
The same week that Watts released his analysis, University of California, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller released an update to the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study. Leo Hickmam of The Guardian writes that Watts was consulted on the methodology of the study and had stated, "I'm prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong." Watts had furnished Muller's team with data accumulated by volunteers. "As a reflection of my increased confidence, I have provided them with my surfacestations.org dataset to allow them to use it to run a comparisons against their data." Chair of the BEST group, Richard Muller, responded to Watts' concerns, "First, there were issues around station quality - Watts showed that some of the stations had poor quality. We studied that in great detail. Fortunately, we discovered that station quality does not affect the results. Even poor stations reflect temperature changes accurately." Watts has since backed off his position, saying the study is of no value because its parts have not been peer reviewed, "When the science and peer review is finished, the results are likely to look different." Watts said that much of the BEST data should be thrown out, "...there is no adjustment procedure in place to fix this, BEST tries to solve it, and I applaud them for the attempt. But without knowing the history of the station, even their methodology doesn't deal with it".
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