Phil Watson, Team Leader of the Coastal Unit in the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water was probably pleased when The Australian‘s Stuart Rintoul asked to interview him about his work. Watson was the man who organised A snapshot of future sea levels: photographing the king tide. The photographs of the king tide in 12 January 2009 are intended to help prepare NSW to adapt to a possible 90cm of sea level rise this century. So I’m guessing he wasn’t too pleased when Rintoul’s front page story about his work claimed that “Watson has written a report stating that global warming is not affecting sea levels” and that this report showed that sea level would only rise about 15 cm this century. You can imagine that Rintoul’s story might make it a bit harder for Watson to get folks to prepare for a 90cm rise.
His department wrote to The Australian:
I refer to today’s article titled, Sea-level rises slowing: tidal records. Your article has misrepresented our Mr Phil Watson’s research paper by saying that “global warming is not affecting sea levels”. This is untrue and misleading and it is not what Mr Watson told your journalist. Mr Watson’s research looked only at measurements of historical data. It specifically did not consider predicted linkages between sea level rise and global warming predicted by climate models. Our organisation is committed to open scientific investigation. This important research will help us understand the different contributions of the El Nino-La Nina Southern Oscillation and of climate change to sea level change. The research and underlying data is entirely consistent with the rate of global average sea level rise for the 20th century advised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was of the order of 17 +/- 5 cm.
There is strong national and international evidence that sea levels will increase substantially in this century. The world is warming and this includes the ocean. When water warms, it expands and sea level rises. Sea level rise is a slow process but it has serious medium and long term impacts. The projections are for a rise of 40 cm by 2050 and 90 cm by 2100 in NSW, and this data is reflected in NSW policies. Our scientists are working with others to increase understanding of what and where the impacts may be, so that we can better plan for and help local communities adapt. If we are prudent now, we can substantially reduce future costs.
Do you think that The Australian printed this letter?
Of course not.
Instead they repeated the misrepresentation in an editorial
In February last year we published a front-page story quoting then climate change minister Penny Wong’s warning that rising oceans could see some of our most famous beaches destroyed or eroded back “hundreds of metres” over the coming century. We quoted scientific opinion suggesting that claim was exaggerated and we also went to Bondi Beach to seek the views of locals. Patrick Doab, who had been swimming there for more than three decades without noticing significant changes said: “I think it’s just too drastic to say that the beach is going to change and (my grandchildren) won’t be able to go to a beach like this.”
A couple of days later on ABC TV’s Insiders program, Fairfax journalist and left-wing commentator David Marr said: “This week The Australian had a nice bloke at Bondi, he’d been swimming at Bondi for years, and they led the paper with this story, they had his picture on the page saying, you know, ‘I’ve been swimming at Bondi for 30 years and I haven’t noticed the ocean come up’ . . . complete nonsense.” Fellow guest, ABC presenter Fran Kelly, chimed in, “Yeah, nonsense.” They returned to their discussion about how this newspaper was deliberately overstating the problems confronting then prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Well, we don’t need to inform them that when it came to holding back the tide of voter disenchantment, Mr Rudd proved to be no King Canute. And now, no doubt to the astonishment of Marr and Kelly, the ocean tides don’t seem to be behaving according to their preferred script either. As we reported yesterday, NSW’s principal coastal specialist, Phil Watson, has produced peer-reviewed analysis of ocean-level measurements, concluding increases are far below previous climate science predictions. (So he measured what Mr Doab had observed). His work has been endorsed by Macquarie University climate researcher Howard Brady. “In all cases, it is clear that sea-level rise, although occurring, has been decelerating for at least the last half of the 20th century,” says Dr Brady.
In fact, Watson’s paper found that sea level rise had accelerated at the end of the 20th century. The deceleration only appeared when you calculated a quadratic trend since 1920 (Corrected see here). But look at the data:
The quadratic trend has sea level not increasing at all at the end of the 20th century even though that’s when sea level is increasing most steeply. The problem is that a quadratic trend isn’t adequate to describe what happened to sea level over the century. Stefan Rahmstorf has more details on problems with a similar paper using US data.
And what of “Macquarie University climate researcher Howard Brady”? If you read Rintoul’s story carefully, you will note that Brady’s role is crucial. Rintoul could not get Watson to say the things he wanted, so he needed Brady in the story to make the statement Rintoul wanted. (That sea levels would only rise 15cm).
In 2002 The Australian described him like this:
Sometime Catholic priest, schoolteacher, Antarctic chaplain, honorary US Navy Lieutenant-Commander, geologist, stockbroking analyst, business consultant, academic author and researcher.
With such a CV, 61-year-old Howard Brady seems an unlikely boss of an oil company.
But as managing director of Mosaic Oil, which is producing and exploring in Queensland’s Surat Basin, Dr Brady has brought his undoubted skills to the intellectual problem of producing gas from Permian rocks, a geological strata usually disregarded in Australian oil and gas exploration.
Brady retired from Mosaic in 2005 and his only publication in climate science are a couple of letters to the editor in Sydney Morning Herald where he was just as dismissive of sea level change as his now.
Thanks to Andrew, Jimmy, Mike and Hank in email and comments.
Update Tamino does a much better analysis of the data:
But now we come to one of the very big problems: instead of just using the smoothed (20yr moving average) values to gain insight from the graph, he actually treats them as data and subjects them to analysis. …
In fact the first and last 20 years of data get less than a full “vote” in the time evolution of the signal, and the closer to the beginning or end the less vote they get. This downplaying of the earliest and latest values — especially the latest — undermines our ability to determine the most recent behavior and whether or not the time series has recently shown acceleration.
When fitting a quadratic curve to estimate the acceleration, excluding the late data can actually change the sign of the result. Consider the Fremantle data from 1940 to the present (one of the data sets used by Watson). … But when I use the actual data in the same analysis (with the annual cycle removed), the estimated acceleration is positive, 0.013 mm/yr/yr. By suppressing the influence of the most recent data, an estimate of acceleration has been changed to one of deceleration.
Update 2: The Conversation does what Rintoul somehow could not do and talks to someone from the CSIRO.
The printed story contains a graphic contrasting the 89cm sea level rise by 2100 predicted by the IPCC with the 15cm sea level rise “as predicted by the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change”.