Measuring global temperatures: Satellites or thermometers?

weather satelliteThe official global temperature numbers are in, and NOAA and NASA have decided that 2015 was the warmest year on record. Based mostly upon surface thermometers, the official pronouncement ignores the other two primary ways of measuring global air temperatures, satellites and radiosondes (weather balloons).

The fact that those ignored temperature datasets suggest little or no warming for about 18 years now, it is worth outlining the primary differences between these three measurement systems.

Three Ways to Measure Global Temperatures

The primary ways to monitor global average air temperatures are surface based thermometers (since the late 1800s), radiosondes (weather balloons, since about the 1950s), and satellites measuring microwave emissions (since 1979). Other technologies, such as GPS satellite based methods have limited record length and have not yet gained wide acceptance for accuracy.

While the thermometers measure near-surface temperature, the satellites and radiosondes measure the average temperature of a deep layer of the lower atmosphere. Based upon our understanding of how the atmosphere works, the deep layer temperatures are supposed to warm (and cool) somewhat more strongly than the surface temperatures. In other words, variations in global average temperature are expected to be magnified with height, say through the lowest 10 km of atmosphere. We indeed see this during warm El Nino years (like 2015) and cool La Nina years.

The satellite record is the shortest, and since most warming has occurred since the 1970s anyway we often talk about temperature trends since 1979 so that we can compare all three datasets over a common period.

Temperatures of the deep ocean, which I will not address in detail, have warmed by amounts so small — hundredths of a degree — that it is debatable whether they are accurate enough to be of much use. Sea surface temperatures, also indicating modest warming in recent decades, involve an entirely new set of problems, with rather sparse sampling by a mixture of bucket temperatures from many years ago, to newer ship engine intake temperatures, buoys, and since the early 1980s infrared satellite measurements.

How Much Warming?

Since 1979, it is generally accepted that the satellites and radiosondes measure 50% less of a warming trend than the surface thermometer data do, rather than 30-50% greater warming trend that theory predicts for warming aloft versus at the surface.

This is a substantial disagreement.

Why the Disagreement?

There are different possibilities for the disagreement:

1) Surface thermometer analyses are spuriously overestimating the true temperature trend
2) Satellites and radiosondes are spuriously underestimating the true temperature trend
3) All data are largely correct, and are telling us something new about how the climate system operates under long-term warming.

First let’s look at the fundamental basis for each measurement.

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