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Global warming data blunder: Worth the fuss?

Despite broad consensus on the existence, origins and potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, a vocal minority continues to question the motives, methods and assumptions of climate scientists sounding the alarm. So when temperature data released by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), one of the leading monitors of climate change, showed an unusually warm October, climate change skeptics cried foul.

As it turned out, the GISS data were flawed. The relatively minor glitch was fixed and the figures updated. End of story? Of course not. Climate change skeptic Anthony Watts called the mistake a "data train wreck" in his blog. Global warming denier Christopher Booker, in a column in the U.K.'s conservative Telegraph, called the error a "surreal scientific blunder."

Reality check: GISS climate modeler Gavin Schmidt notes on the blog RealClimate.org that the problem occurred because a small but significant percentage of the hundreds of weather stations scattered around the globe mistakenly reported September instead of October temps. Hence, the seeming but erroneously higher global average. In an attempt to highlight the gaffe, Booker declared: "Across the world there were reports of unseasonal [sic] snow and plummeting temperatures last month, from the American Great Plains to China, and from the Alps to New Zealand. China's official news agency reported that Tibet had suffered its 'worst snowstorm ever.'"

What Booker fails to mention—apart from the folly of relying on anecdotal evidence—is that even the corrected figures show one of the hottest Octobers on record. (This fact, and many others pertaining to Booker's article, are neatly addressed by blogger Tim Lambert.) It's also worth noting that Booker was recently dubbed the "patron saint of charlatans" by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper for his views questioning both global warming and the documented health hazards of asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Booker claims that the flub "raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming." Fact: The error was caught and fixed within a matter of days by eagle-eyed bloggers and commenters (Schmidt credits one of Watts's readers with alerting him to the problem) and supports long-published data suggesting that the globe is warming dramatically and will have consequences if it is not slowed or reversed. It's always distressing to discover an error in scientific data, and GISS may consider implementing stricter oversight. The bottom line: these figures were but a minor part of the climate change picture—and did little to change the equation.

The fact remains that October was significant for its high temperatures relative to the historical record. In other words, the example that climate skeptics seized upon to poke holes in the evidence of climate change served only to confirm that the world is warming because of humans' actions.

CREDIT: Ugur Evirgen/iStockphoto

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