Watts, me worry?

Chico meteorologist Anthony Watts has been hailed a hero by Republicans and dubbed a climate-change ‘denier’ by environmentalists

Anthony Watts, a meteorologist from Chico, Calif., has drawn national attention for his investigation of weather stations that provide official temperature measurements.

Anthony Watts, a meteorologist from Chico, Calif., has drawn national attention for his investigation of weather stations that provide official temperature measurements.

CN&R file photo

Anthony Watts does not believe the hype about global warming. That single fact has caused him more trouble the past year than in any other stretch before—and that’s saying something, since he’s experienced the tumult of television newscasting and partisan politics.

In the region north of California’s state capital, Watts has become a lightning rod for debate. The meteorologist has been praised for his stance—the local Republican Party gave him its 2007 Truth Award—but, more often, vilified for it.

He cannot make a comment to the media or write a letter to an editor without drawing rebukes. A retired chemistry professor dogs his every utterance. Another “neighbor"—a woman involved with the Chico Peace & Justice Center, no less—encouraged him to commit suicide by CO2 asphyxiation, in a letter published by the newspaper that hosts his blog, “Watts Up With That?” at www.norcalblogs.com.

What makes him different from your garden-variety denier is notoriety. Watts has appeared on Fox News and recently presented a paper at a University of Colorado conference on climate change. He’s a weatherman who builds weather-measuring equipment for television and radio stations, casting a critical eye at the work of eminent scientists like James Hansen, NASA’s chief climatologist—but on very specific grounds.

He’s also green: He lives in an Energy Star-rated home, put solar panels on his old home, and during his term on the school board he pushed for the solar panels that now generate clean power at a local elementary school.

“I’m very much for conservation. I’m for removing pollutants from the atmosphere, but I’m skeptical about CO2 as the main driver for climate change,” Watts said. “I believe it’s a factor, but I don’t believe it’s a main one.”

For that, he’s become an endangered species.

Watts is not what most people would expect of a weatherman. He’s not tall, thin, smiley-faced and blow-dried. He’s of average height with the average build of the average 49-year-old, with a well-groomed mustache and discrete hearing aids.

The Fox News appearance in July was his first on TV for a while. Watts forecasted the weather for CBS affiliate KHSL from 1987 to 2002; since then, he’s been the meteorologist on KPAY radio (local home of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage) and its sister stations.

He warily agrees to talk about his galvanizing views, fearful of yet another round of repercussions.

“This is a complex thing,” Watts says, his cup of coffee long since drained. “What I knew a year ago compared to now are worlds apart. But it took a long time to get there, and the average American who reads newspapers, Scientific American, maybe stuff on blogs, doesn’t get into the depth and doesn’t see the whole process.”

The sun is the main driver of global warming, he says, not man-made CO2. Distilling his explanation: The sun’s magnetic field affects the Earth’s magnetic field, and that affects how radiation permeates our atmosphere. He cites professor Henrik Svensmark’s theory that cosmic rays get their intensity modulated by the Earth’s magnetic field—the field’s strength influences how much radiation gets in and how much gets deflected. (Cosmic rays leave cloud trails, or condensation nuclei seeds, in the upper atmosphere, which helps create more clouds; the varying clouds vary the amount solar radiation received on the earth’s surface.)

He finds confirmation in a Duke University study, published in last month’s Journal of Geophysical Research, saying the sun may have contributed at least 50 percent of the global warming the past century; and a Department of Energy report that greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States declined 1.5 percent last year.

“So that’s why I believe the sun is more of a driver than people think,” he said. “The amount of power associated with the sun’s magnetic field, the Earth’s magnetic field, is really beyond our comprehension. It is a much, much larger thing than what we can produce in terms of energy to change ourselves.”

Objection to the science of man-made climate change is hardly unique, and has been widely disputed. The distinct component of Watts’ disbelief is that data behind global warming may be flawed because the network for measuring temperature has been compromised.

“Measuring temperature isn’t as easy as it sounds. When you’re dealing with the open air, you’ve got all these things that are happening: solar radiation coming in, infrared radiation coming off the ground, objects like buildings and cars re-radiating infrared radiation. All those things play a factor in measuring the air temperature.”

After not getting re-elected to the local school board last November, Watts found himself with time to indulge his curiosity about climate change. He thought back to 1978, when he was a student working in a lab at Purdue University and was asked to repaint the wood box around the mercury thermometer used to gauge the air temperature. He had to use whitewash, the coating used when the first “Stevenson screens” (as the boxes are called) got built.

The weather station at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, was placed in a parking lot between campus buildings, for lack of a better location

Photo by Warren Meyer, courtesy of surfacestations.org

The next year, latex got approved for repainting. Watts wondered if this might make a difference. This May, he decided to find out. In his backyard, he conducted “a simple, science-fair-level experiment": Watts took three pine slats—one bare, one whitewashed, one latex-painted—drilled a hole in each for a calibrated thermometer and exposed them to sun. “To my surprise,” he said, “whitewash was significantly cooler than latex paint, and both were significantly cooler than bare wood.”

Then he wondered if many of the official weather stations had been repainted. For starters, Watts went to the one closest to home, at the on-campus farm of California State University, Chico.

In the early days of temperature-logging, each weather station was staffed by someone who logged thermometer readings and reported them to the U.S. Weather Bureau. Like many others now, Chico’s station had been converted to automation. It has an electronic sensor and equipment inside the Stevenson screen and a radio antenna outside.

Watts found the presence of electronics near the thermometer “really just odd—why would anybody put electronics inside the shelter as opposed to putting it outside in a weather-proof enclosure, so that the heat from the electronics didn’t bias the sensor?”

He decided to check the next-closest station, 20 miles west in the city of Orland. That station was in primo condition, smartly painted and calibrated, so he figured the first one was a fluke.

Then he headed 50 miles southeast to Marysville. “I was gobsmacked at how it was set up,” he said. “The fire chief parks his vehicle, radiator in, right next to the sensor. There are these two electronics buildings next to it, running the cell tower next to it.

The weather station at California State University Chico is fully automated, eliminating the need for someone to record temperature readings by hand each day.

courtesy of surfacestations.org

“It’s about the worst possible place you can imagine for measuring temperature. I could stand there and feel warm air-conditioning exhaust blowing from the cellular electronics buildings.

“So all of a sudden now I had two of the three places that I visited that had problems with the way the thermometers were exposed to the measuring environment. So I decided maybe I had to look at it on a larger scale.”

He checked the Internet and found no photographic database. That made him even more dubious: “A scientist who was doing studies and saying, ‘I was getting temperatures from this location,’ wouldn’t necessarily know what the measurement environment was like.”

He wasn’t—and isn’t—alone in his scrutiny of official weather stations. Professor Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado also was looking into the U.S. Historical Climatology Network, around 1,200 sites that constitute the basis of climate records. His research group was posting its findings online, and his efforts dovetailed nicely with Watts’. As he told a local newspaper this summer before going on sabbatical, specifics regarding the stations are important “because this is the data that is used to construct the anomalies all across the United States.”

On June 4, Watts launched SurfaceStations.org, a Web database of weather stations. The site includes a set of standards for inspections, for which he consulted Pielke. A volunteer corps numbering 320 has fanned out to check Stevenson screens nationwide. They’re about 35 percent done.

“What we were finding was a network that was falling into disrepair and disregard,” Watts said. “Stations may have started out in a good citing situation, but urbanization grew up around them, or carelessness might have occurred.”

Thus, his doubts.

“I believe that our [man-made] contribution [to climate change] may be far less than has been postulated. Our measurement network has been compromised—not intentionally, but accidentally and through carelessness,” he said.

The temperature sensor inside the Stevenson screen at California State University Chico hangs in front of a box containing battery and electronic equipment.

courtesy of surfacestations.org

Watts’ skepticism flies in the face of the international scientific community—not to mention his local community, a university town in the middle of farm country. Who is he, a part-time researcher working out of his home, to call into question the conclusions of world renowned experts?

“I think there’s a disconnect between the people at the top of the food chain of climate science and the people like myself who are in the measurement environment,” he said. “James Hansen of NASA did his study of urbanization by looking at Department of Defense satellite photos and counting nightlights in his office. That doesn’t take into effect the kind of things I found. And any good scientist who’s doing any kind of work with data should look at how data is being gathered, because if the data’s wrong, your whole study’s wrong.”

But are Watts’ conclusions wrong?

Hansen responded in an e-mail: “There are many stations that are badly compromised by various problems, which is not surprising as they were set up as weather stations, not for monitoring small climate trends. The efforts to remove faulty records, or adjust their long-term trends based on neighboring rural stations, are imperfect.

“Yet there are many ways to verify that the global trends that have been deduced, including large-scale regional changes, are basically valid. The climate really is changing.”

And thousands of scientists from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concur. The checks and balances used in climate studies are accessible through the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (www.giss.nasa.gov) and Hansen’s Columbia University Web page (www.columbia.edu/~jeh1).

When viewed against the backdrop of such high-powered researchers, Watts’ doubts seem like pebbles tossed at storm windows—that’s the reaction he gets over and over again.

His response, though, is another way he deviates from the nabob stereotype.

“I’ll be frank: If we go through this and we do all the due diligence—we figure out all the bias associated with urbanization, air conditioners, everything around these sensors—and we still have a positive up-trend after all that, I’ll be satisfied,” he said. “I’ll know the science and the mathematics and the data is right. That’s what I want—I want the science to be right.”