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How well did that 50 degree forecast work out for the BOM?

Posted By Joanne Nova On February 7, 2013 @ 4:32 pm In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

You could almost be forgiven for wondering if the Bureau of Meteorology is a science unit or a PR agency. They seem professionally adept at getting headlines, but not so hot at predicting the weather.

On Jan 7th the BOM models forecast 50 spanking hot degrees across hundreds of square kilometers in central Australia. But it was a whole week ahead, the prediction itself cooled with a day or two, and in the area under the “purple searing spot” the result on Jan 14th ended up being around 40C instead. That’s fine in itself — predictions are difficult. What’s not fine is the PR storm that ensued, which is still being used, as if somehow the very fact that our faulty climate models predicted a record temperature (but failed) is evidence of man-made global warming. How many thousands of people all around the world now think that Australia had a 50C plus day this January? Did anywhere hit the fifty mark? No report of one so far. Watch the loop of Australia’s January temperatures here. The highest brown bar on that graph is 45 – 48C, and those hot spots are a thousand kilometers from the purple patch.

That said, it was awfully hot for a couple of weeks. Birdsville got to 49C on Jan 13th.  Moomba 49.6C on the 12th. But even these temperatures are not “a new climate”. How many people around the world realize that 50C plus days have occurred many times before across Australia? Even if it had got to 51C,  there are many approximate equivalents in the last 180 years. It’s like trying to rewrite history. The BOM were probably 100 years too late in adding colors to the scale. They should have been there all along.

The wild PR success of the “new colours” meme, meant that newspapers all over the world carried yet another free but disguised advert promoting bad government policies, poor science, and fraud-prone and unnecessary marketing schemes. Did the BOM push this angle, or was it the media?

So the modelers get it wrong, yet score a PR success anyway. What pain and embarrassment ensued when people realized the fuss was overdone? (Why put out predictions with so much map detail, if the details are so unreliable?)

The prediction (left) versus reality (right). The scale on the prediction graph goes up to 54C, but the scale on the reality stops at 48C. (For scale Australia is 4,000 km across.)

 The wild PR success of an inaccurate prediction

How big was the fuss? The message made it to Australian newspapers everywhere. In the SMH the headline read: “Temperatures off the charts as Australia turns deep purple.” Then there was Adelaide Now, The Age, The Courier Mail, Plus Australia Popular Science.

Overseas, the story was picked up by all and sundry like the Telegraph UK , New York TimesScientific American,  Google hosted news, News Yahoo , CBS news, Business Insider and people were writing letters in foreign newspapers. Reuters made it sound like a living hell, “Australia’s record-breaking heatwave has sent temperatures soaring, melting road tar and setting off hundreds of wildfires – as well as searing new colors onto weather maps.” It was all caused by climate change and was “catastrophic” for Rolling Stone. The Guardian got so excited they incorrectly said it was unprecedented and read the colors wrongly as well, saying the forecast was for “over 52″ when the forecast was for 50C. Atlantic Wire made a similar mistake: “See that deep purple in the middle of this acne-red weather report from Down Under? That right there represents 129.2° F or 54 °C — it’s a brand-new shade that the Australian bureau of meteorology was forced to add to its heat index because their country is, you know, kind of on fire. ”

Wired at least had a different take:  “Australian Heat Wave Threatens Gadgets…”  (This heat must be really serious).
The Economist got so excited they thought this heat wave would convert sceptics saying, “Some climate experts are convinced the 2013 heatwave will prove a turning-point in how Australians respond to warnings about human-induced climate change. In a country that relies on fossil fuels for much of its well-being (coal is the second-biggest export and produces about four-fifths of electricity), climate-change sceptics have often swayed political debate.”
(Let’s just say those unnamed climate experts predicting that a short heatwave will convert skeptics are probably the same ones predicting catastrophic warming, right? ‘Nuff said.)
Climate Central “researchers and reports the science of climate change”. You can tell a lot about the level of scientific understanding there, because they included a map of the world for their readers and circled the nation so the climate savvy readers knew where Australia was. At least they got that right.

The day before the predicted 50 degrees didn’t reach 50:

Nor did the following day:

The day after the 50C potential heatwave didn’t get that hot either.

By Jan 9th (one day after the big press explosion) the BOM knew the 50C max forecast was gone from the models, and they did say so. “Now you see it, now you don’t: weather bureau backtracks from 50-plus forecast”. Give them a point. But activists and commenters are still using the lines about the BOM adding color to the map as if it proves something about the climate. Groups like the Climate Institute are happy to repeat the meme to rewrite history:

Today’s record temperatures in Sydney come just 10 days after the Bureau of Meteorology added new colours, purple and pink, to its weather map to denote temperatures once considered off the scale: 50-52°C and 52-54°C respectively.
Those temperatures were not considered “off the scale” in the 1800s. Australia was hot then and it’s hot now.
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