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Flawed Heatwave Report Leads to False Headlines in Major Media

(Cliff Mass Weather Blog) – A failure that misinformed you and millions of others, and a failure that highlighted glaring weaknesses in the media’s ability to cover important scientific issues.  And it revealed the disappointing behavior of some members of the scientific community.

The Northwest Heatwave Attribution Study

During the last week of June, the U.S. Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada experienced the most severe heatwave on record.  So extreme that all-time high-temperature records were not only broken but obliterated.  My recent blogs describe the situation in detail.

Within a week, an international group of scientists, policy researchers, and others rushed to create and distribute an attribution analysis of the heatwave.  A study trumpeting an extreme claim in the first sentence of the report:

Based on observations and modeling, the occurrence of a heatwave with maximum temperatures as observed in the area was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”

As I will show below and previously demonstrated in my recent blogs, this claim is not supported in the document or by the rigorous science, and, in fact, the material in the attribution report contradicts this assertion.  I will provide substantial evidence that the heatwave attribution report, which has not been submitted for peer-review, is profoundly flawed, with serious technical and interpretative errors.

But the lack of peer review and the obvious problems with the study did not stop it from becoming front-page news in both mainstream and secondary media, including the NY Times, the Seattle Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and many more.  Some samples of the hyped headlines are shown below:





With the exception of one story in USA Today, none of the writers questioned the grand claims of the attribution study, nor noted that other scientists had differing viewpoints.  Here in Seattle, an incurious Seattle Times staff did not bother to examine contradictory evidence.  It has become clear that much of our media is more interested in promoting a political narrative than providing citizens with factual information.

As a result of the media’s failure, millions of people were misinformed about the heatwave and its connection with global warming.  And such poor information undermines society’s ability to deal with climate change.

A Technical Examination of The Heatwave Attribution Analysis

In the following sections, I will note a few of the major problems with this attribution study. 

I should note that this research area is one in which I have an extensive background, having published several papers in peer-reviewed journals on Northwest heatwaves.  Some of my papers are referenced in the report and one of the authors contacted me for advice and assistance.

As I shall demonstrate, the study is deeply flawed, does not support the claims in the headline bullets, and has serious scientific and other errors.  If submitted to a journal for peer review, it would be rejected.

The main findings are not supported by scientific evidence or the materials  in the report

As noted above, the first bullet of the main findings states that the heatwave was “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”  Sounds very certain, doesn’t it?  Virtually impossible.

Then read their next bullet:  

“The observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie outside the range of historically observed temperatures.  This makes it hard to quantify how rare the event was”

On one hand, they say it is hard to quantify how rare or unusual the event was, but on the other, they claim the event was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. 

Both statements can not be true.  You can’t be uncertain and certain at the same time.

But the contradictions don’t end there.  In the next bullet, they state there are two possible sources of the extreme temperatures.  The first is a low probability event that was aggravated by climate change.  This is what I suggested in my blog—and I am not the only one who believes that the best science supports this hypothesis. Read Full Article >

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