CRU Emails: Watching Steve McIntyre Make a Fool of Himself

The so-called “Climategate” emails that emanated from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit in November 2009 have, in certain hands and particularly via the right-wing mass media, confused public opinion on climate change more than any corporate-led operation ever could. That is, if you assume that the proliferations and subsequent cherry-picking of the emails was not a corporate-led operation: we suspect that it was.

What is not so well known, and which the guilty parties (by which we mean those trying to distract people from the science of climate change) are not keen to reveal, is that even though the emails were obviously selected in order to extract the maximum possible embarrassment – such that they do – it is very easy to use them to turn the tables on the climate change denial pack. Steve McIntyre, a former mining consultant and spokeperson for the oil industry funded George C. Marshall Institute, is well-known for being one of the most vociferous of the pack, and in his native Canada has the ear of most of the mainstream media. In a country where the largest income is from oil, McIntyre naturally has a ready-made audience for his mathematically based analyses of climate science (he is not a climate scientist) and on his website Climate Audit regularly makes pronouncements on the apparent weaknesses of current climatic findings.

On March 30, 2008, Climate Audit contained an article called “Like a Dog on a Bone” which made a mockery of the latest incarnation of the UK Met Office’s (Hadley Centre) smoothed global temperature graph. Here’s how he picked it up:

UC observed a couple of days ago that Hadley Center, authors of the pre-eminent temperature series, have suddenly identified an “error” in how they presented temperature data. For presentation of their smoothed temperature series in a part-year situation, their methodology calculated the average of months then available and used that to estimate the current year’s temperature for presentation purposes. For their influential graphic showing smoothed temperature series, they used a 21-point binomial filter (this is reported) extrapolating the latest number for 10 years. This obviously places a lot of leverage on January and February temperatures. (UC has replicated their smoothing method; he sent me code and I’ve confirmed that we can exactly replicate their smoothing methods.)

As has been widely reported, January and February 2008 temperatures are noticeably lower than last years. These cold January and February 2008 temperatures have led to a noticeable downturn in the smoothed annual series. This has not escaped the notice of the Hadley Center, who were extremely quick off the mark to notice an “error” which resulted in graphical emphasis of a downturn.

We have recently corrected an error in the way that the smoothed time series of data were calculated. Data for 2008 were being used in the smoothing process as if they represented an accurate estimate of the year as a whole. This is not the case and owing to the unusually cool global average temperature in January 2008, the error made it look as though smoothed global average temperatures had dropped markedly in recent years, which is misleading.

McIntyre uses a couple of graphs to illustrate his point, which is fair enough – but what is most relevant here is the use of quotation marks around the word “error” (he later does the same around “smoothing error”) to emphasise his belief that the data being produced by the climate science community is being manipulated to suit a “warmist” agenda (quoted as this is politically loaded term). In essence, McIntyre is saying that errors claimed by the Hadley Centre (not “Center”) are actually data fudges, used to hide any downturn in the temperature trend.

Now, at the point the criticism was made we only had the official words of the Hadley Centre to counter McIntyre’s claims. However, with the release of the CRU emails, which climate change deniers leapt upon to decry the behavior of climate science in general, there was an email exchange which addressed precisely the point at issue. This is in chronological order, with only personal details removed:

From: Michael Mann []
Sent: 26 March 2008 11:19
To: Folland, Chris
Cc: Phil Jones; Thomas R Karl
Subject: heads up

Hi Chris (and Tom and Phil),

I hope you're all doing well. Just wanted to give you a heads up on something. Have you seen this? apparently the contrarians are having a field day w/ this graph. My understanding that it is based on using only Jan+Feb 08 and padding w/ that final value.

Surely this can't be?? Is Fred Singer now running the UK Met Office website?

Would appreciate any info you can provide,

Michael E. Mann
Associate Professor
Director, Earth System Science Center (ESSC)


Folland, Chris wrote:

Dear Mike and all

First, thanks very much, Mike, for noticing this and preventing greater problems. The error arose from a pre-existing hidden software bug that the person updating the data had not realised was there. The software is a mixture of languages which makes it less than transparent. The bug is now fixed on all the smoothed graphs. It was made worse because the last point was not an average of several preceding years as it should have been but was just January 2008. So many apologies for any excitement this may have created in the hearts of the more ardent sceptics. Some are much on the warpath at present over the lack of recent global warming, fired in some cases by visions of a new solar Dalton Minimum.

I'm retiring from full time work on 17th April but I will return [removed for privacy]. My Climate Variability and Forecasting group is being split (it's the largest in the Hadley Centre by a margin). The biggest part is becoming technically from today a new Climate Monitoring and Attribution group under Peter Stott as Head. He will bring two existing attribution staff to make a group of c.22. Most of the rest (12) will form the bulk of a new Seasonal to Decadal Forecasting group to be set up most likely this summer with a new Head. Finally Craig Donlon, Director of the GODAE GHRSST sea surface temperature project, will go back to our National Centre for Ocean Forecasting (in the next wing of this building), but will work closely we hope with Nick Rayner in Peter Stott's new group on HadISST2.

I will return [personal] in the Seasonal to Decadal Forecasting Group, a mixture of research, some strategy and advice, and importantly, operational seasonal, annual, and probably decadal, forecasting. The Met Office are putting more emphasis on this area, especially the seasonal at present, which is becoming high profile as seasonal success is perceived to have improved. [personal] I will keep my co-leadership with Jim Kinter of the Clivar Climate of the Twentieth Century modelling project for now as well.

So quite a change, as I will be doing more computing work than I have had time for, moving into IDL this autumn which the Hadley Centre as a whole are moving over to about then.

Mike, it's a fair time since we interacted so I'd be very interested in your activities and plans.

With best regards


Prof. Chris Folland
Head of Climate Variability and Forecasting Research
Met Office Hadley Centre, Fitzroy Rd, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB United Kingdom

So that’s it. It was an error in coding, plain and simple. Can we trust the emails? No more or less than those using the emails trust them in the “Climategate” sense. If the data has been manipulated then that is not apparent here; and if the emails are faked then, by implication, none of the emails used by climate change deniers can be trusted either.

The email exchange continues in a most prescient manner:

From: Michael Mann
To: "Folland, Chris"
Subject: Re: heads up
Date: Wed, 02 Apr 2008 13:43:47 -0400
Cc: Phil Jones, Thomas R Karl ,

Hey Chris,

In Tahiti (w/ Phil), limited email. Thanks so much for the detailed response. I also heard from David about this, who had similar. sounds like you guys are on top of this. The contrarians will cry conspiracy once the spurious plot is taken down and replaced w/ a corrected one, but what you can do.

I'm sorry to hear you're retiring from the Met Office, but sounds like you're going to remain active, which is great. lets catch up on things sometime soon more generally!

talk to you later,


What can you do, indeed? In a world where every mistake might be picked up on and used against you and those you represent it is always handy for your opponents to have a conspiracy to call upon – even if there is no conspiracy at all.

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