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Warmest-Year Headlines Can Obscure Long-Term Trends

Recent headlines declaring 2014 the warmest year on record [1] set off debates on specific temperature points that obscure the long-term trends in global warming, New York Times columnist Andrew C. Revkin charged last week.

But after a detailed review of the data, Revkin cites Peter W. Thorne, senior researcher at the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway, who concludes that the agencies that released the data did the best they could with the material—and the political climate—available to them.

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“The message is the longer-term changes,” Thorne writes, and “chasing annual averages is fixating on individual trees at the expense of a view of the forest.” But “there is a demonstrable expectation from multiple stakeholders that annual averages are reported at year end.”

The combination of relentless demand for data and inherent uncertainty in the measurements creates a “scientific Dante’s Inferno,” he says, since “each step to increase the degree of scientific veracity of reporting yields a more and more complicated picture to paint. Meanwhile, whispering in the scientists’ ears are people urging simple messaging.”

Thorne concludes that both NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “did about as good a job as you could in reporting what is complex information as simply as possible. Is it exactly how I would have done so? No. Would I have signed off on it? Yes.”