USHCN in the “ass end of nowhere”

By | November 28, 2007

[Illustrations, footnotes and references available in PDF version]

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Apologist Eli Rabett (Joshua Halpern) recently lamented that in order for dendrochronologists to update tree ring studies used in MBH98/99 (aka Mann’s Hockey Stick) that they “have to drive out to the ass end of nowhere”. It’s such an inconvenience for those that just perform data wrangling in the office, instead of going out to get their hands dirty, that a study used as the basis for legislation hasn’t had its data updated in almost 10 years!

Thanks to Mr. Pete and Steve McIntyre, a recent outing in Colorado to get updated core samples from the very same trees used in Mann’s study proved that it’s not so hard after all. In fact they were able to have a Starbucks in the morning, do the field work, and were back home in time for a late dinner. No futzing with grant proposals, no elaborate plans submitted for approval, just basic honest field science. The samples they collected are in a dendrochronology lab undergoing analysis.

In that same spirit, I decided to survey one of the hottest and most remote USHCN weather stations in the USA, Death Valley. I was able to have a Starbucks’s coffee that morning, complete the work, survey an additional station, and an oddball station and head off to dinner and my next destination all in the same day.

The day started out in Baker, California, at the southern entrance to Death Valley. Appropriately, they have a Starbuck’s there, as well as what was once billed as “the worlds tallest thermometer” which has sadly been converted from a desert information center into the “worlds tallest mini-market”.

Given that it’s over concrete, asphalt, and the roof of a mini-mart, I’m going to give it a CRN rating of “5″. Of course that’s what they want here, hotter temperatures, because that’s part of the tourist attraction.

The drive in was long and desolate, and in a very small town I passed through, Death Valley Junction, I spotted one of the oddest weather station setups I’ve ever seen on the roof of a building.

I’ve never seen a pint sized “Stevenson Screen” mounted on a rooftop tower before. It was on an adobe building that looked like it was once a motel. You can see the shadow of the tower on the southernmost rooftop in the Google Earth link. I guess they Like it hot here, and will go to lengths to make new highs. What better way than to put a station on a roof in Death Valley?

The next destination was Furnace Creek, CA, where the official USHCN station is located at the Death Valley National Monument Visitor’s Center.

I pulled into the Visitors Center and was struck by the large parking lot and RV parking lot just to the west of the center. Must be a lot of people that come here. Off to find the weather station. The B44 form I got from former CA State Climatologist Jim Goodridge indicated where the Stevenson Screen was placed, but the NCDC MMS record showed the station was converted to an MMTS, so I wondered if the old station still existed. Luckily for me, it did.

As seems typical of many USHCN stations, the old station was placed more for the convenience of the observer than for separation from localized bias. Note the parking lot and propane tank. Off to west are RV’s from the large RV park. The station is just a few steps from the back door of the Park Service admin building.

Would the MMTS placement be any better? Off to find it, I walked the perimeter of the building, and found it, about 30 feet away from the east side of the building.

Note more weather stations on the rooftops. Like I said “they like it hot” here. The station on the left has a camera, which you can watch here.

So in the hottest place in North America, both the historical and new thermometer are smack dab in the middle of the only island of human influence in a vast sea of desert. The visitor’s center wasn’t always there, the big parking lot wasn’t always there, and the RV parks surely weren’t there 50+ years ago. With such buildups, is it any wonder why the temperature trends are upwards at Furnace Creek?

The complete survey with photos from all angles is available on the surfacestations.org image gallery server.

Heading out of Death Valley, there was one more stop to make: Stovepipe Wells. While It is not a GISS or USHCN station, I had recalled seeing a Stevenson Screen in an historical photo from there once, so since it was along the way, it seemed like a good opportunity.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was easy to find, right behind the ranger station next to the parking lot.

There’s even the ubiquitous a/c unit about 30 feet away:

So let’s recap:

Of all the weather stations I visited in the hottest place in North America, how many were free of microsite biases from nearby human influences? Answer: none

Parking lots and buildings seem to be the biggest influence, and it’s clear that the two NOAA/NWS placed stations at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells were placed with the convenience of the observer in mind, not the measurement environment.

There’s one more weather station operated by NOAA in Death Valley, at Badwater, and it too suffers from the “some like it hot” mentality that seems to pervade weather stations in Death Valley. The late John Daly has an interesting writeup on it’s placement which seems to be for the sole purpose of edging out El Azizia, Libya for the hottest temperature ever recorded of 136°F. Currently Death Valley is second at 134°F.

Yes, some like it hot.
Appendix: Badwater
by John L. Daly
(19th July 2002)

In climatology, record-breaking is of little significance climatically speaking. An all-time hot record in one place can be easily matched by an all-time cold record somewhere else. This year in the U.S. and in Australia, both hot and cold records have been broken at various times and places. They make interesting fare for the Guinness Book of Records, but little else.

However, record-breaking does have one purpose for the greenhouse industry, namely that of heightening public fears about global warming. For this reason, the industry likes to see hot records being broken as often as possible, present a lot of media hype about them, and then go into quick denial and spin-making when cold records are broken, sometimes even blaming the cold record on global warming!

The industry also dislikes a hot record being very old, such as the all-time hot daytime record for Australia of 53.1°C. set at Cloncurry, Queensland in 1889. Valuable research money and academic effort was spent in a futile effort to discredit that one record (Trewin, B., Aust. Met. Mag. 46 (1997) 251-256).

There is one all-time hot record that is the ultimate global prize: 58°C (136°F) set at Al Aziziya, Libya, in 1922. This was the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world and has stood for 80 years in spite of real or imagined `global warming". It is even noted in the Guinness Book of Records. But 1922 is a long time ago and the longer it stands, the less convincing are the claims about global warming in the eyes of the public.

To topple this record, the industry has not bothered with the Cloncurry approach – that of seeking to discredit the record itself – as that appeared to be, and was, merely sour grapes and spin.

Instead, the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), has set up their own temperature instrument in Death Valley, even though there is already a long-standing instrument at Furnace Creek right in the open central part of the valley.

The new instrument is located 20 miles south of Furnace Creek at Badwater (Fig.1).

The photo shows the Badwater area with a large salt pan stretching into the far distance, caused by evaporation of salty water welling up from a spring just metres this side of the sign shown in the photo.

It was at Furnace Creek that the all-time hottest record in the USA was broken, 57°C. ( 134°F.) in 1913, just 2°F short of the Libyan all-time record.

The GISS historical data for Death Valley (i.e. Furnace Creek) is presented left and shows no overall warming at Death Valley since the 1950s.

The new instrument at Badwater was installed in the late 1990s, but it must be stressed that the record left is for Furnace Creek, not Badwater. Yet the public plaque on the instrument at Badwater implies otherwise.

Here is how the public plaque at Badwater misrepresents Death Valley (Fig.3). It’s red graph line traces the same data as the one above, and it is immediately clear that the ARC graph differs from GISS in that the ARC graph shows a continuous warming whereas the GISS graph only shows warming pre-1950s with little long-term change since. They can’t both be right. The plaque also said –

"During the summer of 1998 – the warmest year on record – we recorded the hottest air temperature anywhere in the world of 53.06°C ±0.1°C (128°F) on 17 July 1998 at 3:15 pm local standard time."

Having mentioned 1998, that year was conveniently left off the chart. And with good reason, as Fig.2 shows that 1998 was a particularly cool year.

What exactly do those skilfully crafted words on the plaque mean anyway? Note, it refers to 1998 as the `warmest year on record’, but omits to say they are referring to the world as whole, not to Death Valley itself. 1998 at Death Valley (Furnace Creek) was actually cooler than usual.

The plaque claims Death Valley recorded the hottest air temperature anywhere in the world on 17th July 1998 – implying it was an all-time world record. It was not. It was referring to 1998 only. Actually, the hottest temperature ever recorded at Death Valley was way back in 1913 on 10th July – a whopping 134°F (57°C).

The sharp dip in temperature near the end of the record (Fig.2) was – 1998 ! – the `warmest year on record’ according to the plaque. In fact, 1998 was the coolest year at Death Valley since 1945, belying the implied claims about 1998.

Note how the ARC plaque refers to `Death Valley’ generally and not Badwater or Furnace Creek specifically. This merging of two quite different locations 20 miles apart is itself misleading to the public who may be unaware that `Death Valley’ now has more than one weather station.

A photo of the weather instrument at Badwater is shown left, the small yellow plaque mounted low down on the structure. I visited there during my trip in April this year.

Unlike the Furnace Creek instrument which is located in the open centre of the big valley, the new instrument has been mounted next to the eastern side of the valley at Badwater. The local topography is such that the instrument sits in a curved hollow (topographical map – Fig.5) so that it is well sheltered from all but westerly winds, and fully exposed to the afternoon summer sun. In fact, the whole area around the instrument is a perfect afternoon sun trap.

On the east side of the instrument is a high west-facing cliff over 500 feet tall, a cliff which will heat up magnificently in the afternoon sun on a hot summer’s day. 280 feet up on that cliff is a large sign which says `mean sea level’ (Badwater is 285 feet below sea level).

Rising steeply above the cliff is the aptly named Dantes Peak, 785 feet high, overlooking what must be the nearest thing to `Dante’s Hell’ on Earth – Badwater in Death Valley.

On the western side of the instrument is a vast white salt pan, caused by salt deposits from a spring bubbling up from underground (the `bad water’) (Fig.1&6). This salt pan has a high albedo to sunlight so that the afternoon sun will reflect light and heat off the white expanse directly onto the cliff and the instrument itself. On a bright afternoon, it will act almost like a mirror to sunlight.

In all of Death Valley, the ARC has chosen just about the hottest spot possible in the hottest valley in North America. They have in effect put it into a natural oven – and done so in the full knowledge of Badwater’s topography. Now all they have to do is wait – wait for the inevitable day when the conditions will be just right – clear skies, still air, a blazing sun, and that instrument will heat up from the combined heating of the air, the immense heating from the nearby cliff only metres behind the instrument, the intense reflected heat radiation from the salt pan, and the mercury will very likely fall over the Libyan line and record the `hottest temperature ever measured on earth’.

Then we will see the champagne corks fly as the greenhouse industry will cry with righteous indignation, announcing the `new hottest temperature ever recorded on earth’, how it’s all due to global warming etc. etc. and all the time, the whole thing will be about as fake as a three dollar bill.

Even the wording on the plaque on the instrument betrays the real intent – the exclusive emphasis on the significance of heat, of global warming, of record-breaking temperatures, of the `hottest year ever’ etc. The plaque speaks of little else. Even the opening words of the text are `Carbon dioxide released by human activities etc. ….‘. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude that record-breaking is the primary purpose of the instrument, not genuine climatic research.