#SMH not telling the full story on the #weather and #climate

Once I bought the magnificent broadsheet sized Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), in fact I considered it the mark of a true Sydneysider to be able to manipulate its wide spread while standing on a crowded bus. Lots have changed since those days.  I seldom buy copies of the SMH these days. In fact I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper, broadsheet or tabloid. My days are now spent browsing digital media, laptop and iPad replacing news print.

One of the great advantages of digital media is the ease with which one can cross reference stories.  This really came home to me this afternoon.  I was following up stories on the Murray Darling Basin from Google Alerts and came across a piece from Liz Hannan entitled Newsmaker: The Murray Darling Basin. It was a superficial but interesting piece on the river system.  It added little to the current discussion, but was an easy read after a hard day at work.

Top Environmental Articles

Glancing across to the lefthand column I noticed the heading Top Environmental Articles.  Leading the list was an article with the title Sydney’s coldest start to summer in 50 yearsby James Robertson. The article was given additional gravity with links to satellite image, radar and Sydney weather statistics.  It was also supported by a video.

My immediate reaction was of course it’s a La Nina year and, with global warming such a significant feature of the planet’s weather and climate, rainy conditions are bound to occur in temperate eastern coastal regions like Sydney.  Any informed high school geography student should be able to recognise that such a headline is catchy but misleading. They should be able to explain that it’s been cool because it’s been wet this last 5 days or so.

Even so, I thought I’d better read the article to see what was being written.

The article led with these two paragraphs.

It’s shaping up to be the coldest start to summer in more than 50 years.

If forecasts prove accurate – and Sydney stays below 23 degrees until Wednesday – it will be the coldest first week of summer since 1960. It’s already the coldest in 44 years, Josh Fisher, a senior meteorologist at Weatherzone, said.

Well this will certainly stir the climate debate po, I thought. On the face of it, such a story could well amount to yet another layer in the sceptical arguments about self-serving scientists who, in pursuit of research grants, ply us with scientific arguments that planet is warming.  If it’s the coldest in 44 years then once again here’s potential evidence that those scientists have something to hide.

Now I’m not saying this was the writer’s intention but his lack of balance, by omission, was marked. Perhaps in saying this I seem to be pedantic, but as I said at the outset one of the great advantages of digital media is the ease with which one can cross reference stories.  A little basic research quickly shed more light on the story.

The BOMsite tells the complete story

Flicking over to the the Australian Bureau of Meteorology site, the BOMsite as I like to call it, quickly added another dimension to the matter.  I’ll quote the relevant comments from the BOMsite in full:

Sydney Observatory Hill recorded an average maximum temperature of 25.2 °C during November, 1.6 °C above the historical average, with above average temperatures throughout the city. Temperatures were particularly warm in the first half of the month, with five consecutive days above 28 °C at Observatory Hill between the 6th and 10th, the first time in November since 1966. Three days reached 30 °C during the month, above average for November (2 days), reaching 37.2 °C on the 14th. Temperatures cooled during a rainfall event towards the end of the month, with maximums of just 18.3 °C on the 23rd and 24th.

The average minimum temperature was 17.8 °C, 2.2 °C above the historical average and the 3rd warmest on record, following 2009 and 1914, and the second warmest on record at Sydney Airport. Nights were warmer than average throughout the city, particularly during the middle of the month, reaching 24.2 °C at Observatory Hill on the 10th. This was the equal 3rd warmest November day on record and the warmest since 24.8 °C on November 14 1967. Only four nights dipped below 15 °C during the month, reaching 13.8 °C on the 3rd, only the 8th time on record with no colder nights.

So what this boils down to is this.  November 2011 was characterised by:

  • the wettest conditions since 2007
  • the third warmest average minimum temperatures on record
  • Equal third warmest night on record.
  • Above average maximum temperatures.

I guess in one sense the SMH article was right, summer according to some begins on 1 December and it’s certainly been wet and cool since then.  Unfortunately, like so much of the media commentary on weather and climate the objective is to attract readers, sell advertising and, by default, tell only part of the story. It’s time the SMH improved the quality of its environmental journalism.

2 thoughts on “#SMH not telling the full story on the #weather and #climate

  1. Aside from the obvious but often ignored difference between weather (highly variable and day-to-day) and climate (30 year trends and averages, essentially) people also forget that even if by some freak we had a week of subzero temps in Sydney in December or even a white Christmas, we would do well to see what’s happening in other parts of the globe. In La Nina times watch them bake and suffer on the other side of the Pacific! Check out what’s happening in the Arctic,

    Climate change can’t be assessed by looking at a week or two of weather in one spot on the globe or by sticking your head out the window.

    And if you think the Herald is bad, try The Australian. But I know you have more sense…


  2. I think you are being a bit unfair to the SMH.

    It’s really just a variant on talking about the weather, not the climate.

    One reason is that they have all these statistics and information so that weather statistics are more and more like cricket statistics and they want to push their “weatherzone” source.

    I didn’t take them to be pushing in any way a line on whether global warming was occurring. Of course, you can’t stop some people drawing such a conclusion but that is not a reason not to gossip about the weather.


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