When is a record not a record?

It’s been  cold here in Brisbane for the last few days, at least by our subtropical standards, with overnight minimums of 6 degrees in the city, and negative temperatures in  towns like Stanthorpe in the nearby Granite Belt. That occasioned lots of news coverage, with the observation that this was the coldest temperature we’ve had since 2014 and one of the coldest since 2000. The same was true for much of Eastern Australia. Melbourne had its coldest morning in several years, and  a couple of towns in NSW had the lowest minimum for several decades.

All of these are “records” in the trivial sense that we record the temperature every day, but none of them are records in the commonly used sense of “lowest (or highest) value in the relevant record”. That didn’t stop the usual denialist suspects claiming a RECORD (all caps in original) and evidence of global cooling. The Daily Mail  claimed “Australia’s east coast shivers through its coldest EVER morning” even though the sub-headlines made it clear this wasn’t true.

What’s striking here is that the same people who are willing to claim that the Bureau of Meteorology is part of a world-wide warmist conspiracy to doctor climate records are eagerly credulous about any piece of data that suits their case. Next time we get record heat, the conspiracy theories will be wheeled out again, but for now the Bureau is an unquestionable source of scientific evidence.

To take this news a little more seriously, it’s important to remember that there are vast numbers of records that can potentially be broken on any given day – highest and lowest maxima and minima, for a given month, in any location where weather is recorded. That means we need either to confine attention to a limited number of records – most obviously mean global temperatures or look at statistical measures, such as the relative frequency of new records for cold and heat. Both of these measures give the answer that is by now obvious* from experience: the climate globally and Australia is getting warmer.



20 thoughts on “When is a record not a record?

  1. Reading the ABM, the problem seems to be that the low-pressure systems and their fronts are actually way to the south of normal, resulting in the cold dry weather.

    Doesn’t say much for the denialists if the weather is so weakened by warming that the traditional frontal systems are not travelling northwards enough to bring the normal winter rains.

    We ought to hope the ABM scenario is not too right and that we are only witnessing a cyclic fluctuation in the weather after all only a couple of seasons ago there were rains heavy and persistent enough to cause breakdowns in the national and SA power grids.

    Either way, the flat-earthers and Jeremiahs have nothing to find joy in at the latest weather and only make themselves look like the cheap charlatan opportunists they have always been

  2. About weekly from March the Press will announce this is the coldest morning of the year and stop that about early August perhaps, have a rest, then announce the warmest or hottest day of the year from perhaps September until February. We are being subject to a “climate” of fear in many aspects of life. I wish it would stop so I can be relaxed in receiving more meaningful news – if that exists!

  3. Tangential, but I take the opportunity to raise a question prompted by watching a boilerplate spy series in Netflix, Secret City (bad politicos and spooks, good journalists). It’s set in Canberra, which made it watchable. The characters go round in wool coats and complain about the cold. A fair number of countries have specialized political capitals, away from the main centers of economic and cultural life, which creates a standard set of problems. But unlike Washington, Brasilia, Ottawa, and Ajuba, Canberra has a location where its climate is an extreme outlier within the country it governs. Does this explain any features of Oz politics?

  4. At university, as a social science student teacher, I had to do courses in both Meteorology AND Climatology. My lecturers made it clear that these two studies are vastly different. Meteorology is a study of the day to day changes in weather that define ‘average temperature’ based on a 150 year statistical database. But Climatology defines average temperature based on thousands of years of anecdotal evidence. We know, for example, that the earth has had ice ages. To deny that we have also had heat ages is to be counterintuitive. The globe is an enclosed macroclimate. That means that if humans add pollutants then this will change that macroclimate over time. Denying that this is happening today is just absurd.

  5. It is absurd in the extreme to say the BOM is doctoring weather records in a vast conspiracy when ALL the data is publicly available!

  6. The Daily Mail’s writers and subeditors very likely understand that most people only read the headlines- and further, that when headlines are contradicted or ‘nuanced’ in the body of the piece, most people will still recall and accept the assertion in the headline.

    This one reason why studies show that the common ‘mythbusting’ format can actually be counterproductive, reinforcing the myth -rather than communicating the bust.

  7. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2015GL065793

    The number of new hot (high‐maximum and high‐minimum temperatures) temperature records increases dramatically in recent decades, while the number of cold records decreases. In a stationary climate, cold and hot records are expected to occur in equal frequency on longer than interannual time scales; however, during 2000–2014, new hot records outnumber new cold records by 12 to one on average.

  8. Wot Nick said. The strongest evidence that the planet is warming is not the slow and noisy (hence vulnerable to dispute, good faith or otherwise) increase in global average temperatures, but the lopsided nature of the occurrence of extremes. Its a property of Gaussian distributions – small movements in the mean mean much larger movements in the incidence of the extremes.

    Not only does this effect provide clear proof of global warming, it is actually what creates many of such warming’s costs.

  9. James — I’m not sure federal politicians spend enough time in Canberra for its climate to affect their decisions. Especially since it gets pretty warm in summer.

    But what may be contributing considerably to planetary destruction is the simple fact that as people age they tend to feel cold more and heat less.

  10. JW: Once the Left took up climate change as a cause, the tribal Right reflexively became climate contrarians. The location, weather etc in Canberra is a red herring.

  11. James, I just looked at average monthly minimums for Australian capitals and found that Canberra’s daily average is lower than for any mainland capital and usually lower than in Hobart. I also remembered that humans are really stupid. So politicians may well conclude that because it was cold this morning in Canberra there is no such thing as global warming. After all, thousands dead in an Indian heatwave is just a statistic while mild personal discomfort on account of the cold is mild personal discomfort and often a mild emotional reaction trumps all evidence.

  12. Absolutely, the BOM is both beyond reproach and beneath contempt, depending on the weather and how you’re feeling, of course.

    Inland, this QLD drought and winter has been a cracker in more ways than one; people crack hardy and joke that they could do with a bit of global warming. It really is quite desperate, below average rains and higher than average temps has seen a loss of feed that is hard on those animsls not already sold. The smell of roadkill is strong.

    But it seems to be adding not subtracting to the national psyche; people battle on, life is a battle to be fought, never say never, get over it etc.

  13. In addition, the damage to people and families, particularly through suicide, has not been properly addressed. Through climate and markets once proud families and productive properties are literally ground to dust.

    Pulling scrub and off farm work in the coal industry seems to be an acceptable business plan to these battlers.

  14. My understanding [I can’t remember the source] is that global warming means that average temperatures are expected to rise in most places AND weather events are to become more extreme just about everywhere. A new record low temperature is evidence of, or at least provides support for, global warming just as much as a new record downpour, a new record drought length, a new record number of cyclones/tornadoes, a new record highest temperature, a new record … anything to do with weather, show that weather is more extreme. [Someone with better recollection of statistics can provide details of how often an extreme event is likely to be sampled from a stable population. A Statistician or Actuary would know, although some Economists may also recall.]

    Global warming nay-sayers have to show a lack of extreme events AND stationary averages of “weather events”, including temperature. Good luck with that (sarcasm).

  15. I just found a reference: Source: Quiggin, economics in two lessons, 16.5 (draft) … weather events becoming more extreme with global warming.

  16. Ronald, the reason why Canberra is often colder than Hobart is that, Hobart is on the Derwent estuary and open to the winds, whereas Canberra is inland (drier air), in a sort of valley and near some of our highest “mountains”. If there isn’t a lot of wind the cold air doesn’t get blown away as it does in Hobart.

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