Friday, March 23, 2012

12 January 2011 – Political science


I thought you might be interested in an unfolding issue in the UK that offers what President Obama might call a “teachable moment” for those in our profession, i.e., scientists on the public payroll.  While the origins of the issue in question lie in global warming/climate change/climate disruption/climate challenges or whatever the preferred appellation is this week, the pith of the problem, as I see it, is not the substance, but rather how it has been handled - or mishandled - by our brethren abroad.

First, a little background.  On 25 September 2008, the UK Meteorological Office, Britain’s government-funded weather forecasting agency, issued a press release stating that the coming winter was “once again, likely to be milder than average”.(Note A)  The following March, the Met Office issued a release stating that “The UK mean temperature for the winter was 3.2 °C, which is 0.5 °C below average, making it the coldest winter since 1996/97.”(Note B)  Needless to say, this constituted something of an “oops” for the forecasters.

On 25 February 2009, Peter Stott, a climate scientist at the Met Office, stated in a press release that “despite the cold winter this year, the trend to milder and wetter winters is expected to continue, with snow and frost becoming less of a feature in the future.”  Stott went on to add that “The famously cold winter of 1962/63 is now expected to occur about once every 1,000 years or more, compared with approximately every 100 to 200 years before 1850.”(Note C)  A year later, on 1 March 2010, the Met Office stated that the winter of 2009-2010 had “been the coldest since 1978/79” - the coldest winter that Britain had experienced in more than 30 years. (Note D)  Double oops.

Unperturbed by two grossly inaccurate predictions in a row, on 28 October 2010 the Met Office, according to the UK Daily Mail, suggested that “Britain can stop worrying about a big freeze this year because we could be in for a milder winter than in past years.”  According to Helen Chivers, a forecaster at the Met Office, the projections produced by computer forecasting models showed the probability that winter temperatures would be comparable to average temperatures over a 30-year period.”(Note E)

Well, we’ve all seen how winter is playing out in Britain.  According to the BBC, December 2010 featured the coldest December temperatures in the UK since the Met Office began keeping consolidated records in 1910.  Older records show that December 2010 was the second-coldest December since 1659, when Britain and the rest of the world were locked in the depths of the Little Ice Age. (Note F)  That’s three hundred and fifty years ago.

These are simply the facts; I offer no opinion concerning their broader significance to the “climate debate”.  What’s important is what happened next.  On 4 January 2010, the Telegraph reported that, in October, the Met Office had “privately warned the Government - with whom it has a contract - that Britain was likely to face an extremely cold winter. It kept the prediction secret, however, after facing severe criticism over the accuracy of its long-term forecasts.”(Note G)  The Met Office, in other words, was arguing that it had told the Government something different from what it had told the public.

The problem is that if this explanation is true, the Met Office didn’t only “keep the prediction secret”; they actually issued false press releases and published misleading “temperature probability maps” on their website.  The one below, for example, shows a 40-80% probability of above-average temperatures for the UK for the Nov 2010 to Jan 2011 period; a 20-40% probability of average temperatures; and <20% probability of below-average temperatures.

Figure 1 - UK Met Office October 2010 temperature projection for Europe for Nov 2010 to Jan 2011 (Source: Note H)

(Note how that projection covers all of Europe west of the Urals and north of Algeria, where the 2010-2011 winter has, thus far, been “sub-optimal”.)

The Met Office’s claim to have issued a “secret forecast” to the UK government that was - pardon the expression - the polar opposite of the forecast that it provided for public consumption caused observers to ask the obvious question: is the Met Office lying now, or was it lying then?  Is this latest statement an attempt to avoid the consequences of three failed seasonal predictions in a row?  Or is the Met Office telling the truth, and the “secret forecast” had been received, and subsequently suppressed and ignored, by the Cameron Government?  The implication of the latter explanation, of course, is that the Met Office was muzzled by government and prevented from issuing the “real” forecast about the coming cold spell (and if this was true, was the Met Office also “ordered” by its client to provide the public with misleading information?).  It also begs the question why, if the Cameron Government was warned in October that the coming winter would be unpleasant, Britain was so manifestly caught with its trousers down. 

This is not an idle question; some estimates have placed Britain’s economic losses due to weather-related paralysis in December at a billion pounds a day.  If this was preventable - if the Cameron government had been warned, and for whatever reason failed to act - then the political implications could be enormous.  Governments have fallen over less.

Answers may be on the way.  Just yesterday, the BBC submitted a Freedom of Information request asking the UK Government for verbatim transcripts of everything the Government was told by the Met Office about the forthcoming winter weather.(Note I)  One would think that the Met Office, feeling the pressure after having been disastrously wrong three years in a row, might have leaked its “secret October forecast” by now, but there is as yet no circumstantial evidence to support the Met Office’s claim.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  In July of last year, for example, the UK Government received the interim report of an independent review into how Britain’s transport agencies coped with the two preceding winters (the Quarmby Report, Note J).  When consulted by the report’s writers, the Met Office stated that “The effect of climate change is to gradually but steadily reduce the probability of severe winters in the UK”, and added that the probability of the 2010-11 winter being as severe as the two preceding winters was “about 1 in 20” (Quarmby Report, p. 13).  A 5% chance of severe weather hardly sounds like a warning that Britain was about to face an “extremely cold winter”.

It will be interesting to see what the BBC’s FOI request turns up.  If nothing else, this incident offers a grim reminder of the pitfalls of politicization for those engaged in government-funded scientific research.  The truly depressing part is that regardless of which explanation turns out to be true, the Met Office scientists have been caught in a lie: either they are trying to cover up their forecasting inadequacies by lying about having warned the government of an impending cold winter; or they tried to curry favour with their client by telling the government one thing, and telling the public (their real paymasters) something entirely different.

Whichever explanation turns out to be true, the Met Office’s reputation is pretty much shot - and they are unlikely to get a lot of sympathy from Britons who spent most of December waiting on trains, stuck in Heathrow, crawling along unplowed and ungritted roads, coping with heating fuel shortages (and a 5-gigawatt wind power grid that spent the month consuming more energy than it generated - Note K), and in general trying to survive in a country that, thanks to the politicization of the science of weather forecasting, was woefully unprepared to cope with the coldest December in more than a hundred years.




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