The Times Aren't A Changing on Mount Rainier

The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington has an epic feature article up on "Losing paradise: Climate change is changing Mount Rainier."  The first few paragraphs of the piece set the alarmist tone:

If the scientists are right, the end is near for a Northwest treasure – at least as we know it.

Global warming is melting Mount Rainier's glaciers at six times the historic rate.

For years now, the melting has sent floods of water and rock pounding down the mountain, filling up rivers, killing old-growth forests and endangering historic national park buildings.

The glacial outbursts also are tearing up the roads that provide access to the park's wonders, testing the National Park Service mission to keep the great outdoors open to all.

Researchers are flocking to Mount Rainier to study the effects of climate change that they predict will destroy habitat for plant and animal species up and down the mountain.

The end is near?  Old-growth forests are being killed?  Habitat is being destroyed?

Articles like this require a detailed analysis by interested readers.  We can start with this statement in The News Tribune's magnum opus on Mount Rainier and climate change:

The park's weather varies so widely year to year and decade to decade, it obscures long-term changes.

The first weather station in the park wasn't installed until 1909, so there's not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall – especially at high altitudes – to establish trends with those numbers.

You must be kidding: 105 years of climate data isn't enough to establish trends?  Pure nonsense, as is the claim that the park's weather varies so widely that it "obscures long-term changes."  Last time I checked, all major scientific organizations were using climate records much shorter than 105 years to establish trends.

And claiming that year-to-year and decade-to-decade variability obscures long-term changes is oxymoronic – although it makes a convenient alarmism talking point.  The statistical tools we use to assess whether trends are significant or not take into account this variability.

There are many climate datasets that have substantial variability but still yield significant trends over time.  Conversely, there are also many climate datasets that have relatively little variability but that do not exhibit any significant trends.  It is all too convenient to raise the "too much variability" flag when the time series doesn't give you a trend – but I don't see any concerns over "too much variability" when the statistical analyses yield a trend.

In other words, the same degree of variability apparently becomes a problem when the analysis suggests no climate change, but it is just fine when a trend can be identified.  Heads, we win; tails, you lose.  Sounds like a fine philosophy by which to run a casino, but that simply is not how objective and rigorous publicly funded science should work.

Later on in this article, there is the following statement that appears to entirely contradict the excuse quoted above:

Eleven weather stations gather data in the park, but only the station at Longmire has been operating long enough (since 1909) to show trends that climatologists say are significant.

Wait a minute.  Were we not just told earlier in the article that "the first weather station in the park wasn't installed until 1909, so there's not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall – especially at high altitudes – to establish trends with those numbers"?  And now we are being told that "only the station at Longmire has been operating long enough (since 1909) to show trends that climatologists say are significant."

So data since 1909 is not enough to establish trends, except when data since 1909 is enough to show trends?  Sure, that makes sense.

To get into the data for the area, and see whether it agrees with what is claimed in the article, we will focus on this quote:

Analyzing how Mount Rainier might react to climate change differently than the rest of the Northwest is a mostly unexplored area.

However, according to a draft report prepared this year for the National Park Service by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, the historical record contains some surprises.

As a whole, the Pacific Northwest warmed by 1.4 degrees between 1920 and 2000. Longmire warmed, too, but only .5 degree ...

Evidence of a long-term warming trend at Mount Rainier is obscured by recent periods of lower temperatures and higher than usual snowfall.

While Longmire records show a slight warming trend over the past century, records at Paradise show the average temperature dropped – about 1 degree during that time.

The park's weather stations show no significant trends in either precipitation or snow depth since 1970.

This part of the article claims that "the Pacific Northwest warmed by 1.4 degrees between 1920 and 2000," but elsewhere in the piece we are told that "temperatures across the Pacific Northwest are averaging about 1.4 degrees warmer now than they were in 1895."  Once more: wait a minute.  Did temperatures increase 1.4 degrees between 1895 and 2013 (the latest year with complete data) or between 1920 and 2000?

Using NOAA's own datasets, it looks like neither claim is correct.  Between 1920 and 2000, the increase for the Northwest was 0.96º F, and between 1895 and 2013 it was 1.8º F.  Oh, well – these are just details.  But details are important to science, and to science journalism.

It is that climate station at Longmire that is of fundamental interest, though.  The temperature records do indeed start in 1909, but that year has only six months of complete data.  The first full year of complete data at the site doesn't start until 1915, and 1916, 1924, 1926, 1929, 1945, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013 all have missing months of data.

So here is the annual temperature series for Longmire since records began:

There is absolutely no sign of a significant trend over the data record, nor between 1920 and 2000.  There is nearly a perfect non-correlation since 1970 (with a correlation towards cooling, not warming).  The same applies over the last three decades, with a correlation – again – towards cooling, not warming.

There appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Longmire's annual temperature has increased over the past century, or in recent decades.

Note the weasel words yet again: "Evidence of a long-term warming trend at Mount Rainier is obscured by recent periods of lower temperatures and higher than usual snowfall."  Higher than usual snowfall obscures warming trends?  Not sure how that "blame snow for colder temperatures" mechanism works.  Usually we get snow because it is cold, not the other way around.

And to state the blazingly obvious, if there are "recent periods of lower temperatures," then the supposed "long-term warming trend" has ended.  But when we look at the data itself, it doesn't appear there ever was a "long-term warming trend" at Rainier.

While it is true that "records at Paradise [another climate station at Mount Rainier] show the average temperature dropped" during the past century, the climate dataset is terribly incomplete. There are only 39 years with complete monthly datasets over this time.  Regardless, the data that remains – fragmented as it is – suggests a century-long cooling trend.  How does one reconcile that, along with the absence of any 100-year-long trend at nearby Longmire, with climate alarmism claims that Rainier's glaciers are melting because of global warming?

Of course, snow and ice can melt without any change in temperature.  For readers that need an example: put an ice cube on the counter and leave the house temperature at 70º F.  The ice cube will melt.  Its melt rate may even accelerate over time as it progressively turns into a puddle.  The temperature hasn't changed, yet the ice is melting.  Basic principles such as this also apply to macroscale features on the landscape such as glaciers and snowfields.

Another theme that permeates the article is that the rapid glacier melt on Mount Rainier is changing the flow regimes – particularly peak flows – on the rivers draining the mountain.  An interesting narrative, but the data is sketchy at best on this front.

For the Nisqually River near National, peak flows have an effectively perfect non-correlation since 1970.  Similar findings are obtained for annual flows and each and every monthly flow series.

Same goes for the Cowlitz River at Packwood with respect to peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows (with the sole exception of November, which has a significant increasing trend).

The same results for the White River near Buckley with regard to peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows (with the only exception being in September, which has a declining trend).

Finally, the same lack of significant trends for the Carbon River near Fairfax in terms of peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows.

Perhaps the times are not changing as much or as fast on Mount Rainier as some would have us believe?

The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington has an epic feature article up on "Losing paradise: Climate change is changing Mount Rainier."  The first few paragraphs of the piece set the alarmist tone:

If the scientists are right, the end is near for a Northwest treasure – at least as we know it.

Global warming is melting Mount Rainier's glaciers at six times the historic rate.

For years now, the melting has sent floods of water and rock pounding down the mountain, filling up rivers, killing old-growth forests and endangering historic national park buildings.

The glacial outbursts also are tearing up the roads that provide access to the park's wonders, testing the National Park Service mission to keep the great outdoors open to all.

Researchers are flocking to Mount Rainier to study the effects of climate change that they predict will destroy habitat for plant and animal species up and down the mountain.

The end is near?  Old-growth forests are being killed?  Habitat is being destroyed?

Articles like this require a detailed analysis by interested readers.  We can start with this statement in The News Tribune's magnum opus on Mount Rainier and climate change:

The park's weather varies so widely year to year and decade to decade, it obscures long-term changes.

The first weather station in the park wasn't installed until 1909, so there's not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall – especially at high altitudes – to establish trends with those numbers.

You must be kidding: 105 years of climate data isn't enough to establish trends?  Pure nonsense, as is the claim that the park's weather varies so widely that it "obscures long-term changes."  Last time I checked, all major scientific organizations were using climate records much shorter than 105 years to establish trends.

And claiming that year-to-year and decade-to-decade variability obscures long-term changes is oxymoronic – although it makes a convenient alarmism talking point.  The statistical tools we use to assess whether trends are significant or not take into account this variability.

There are many climate datasets that have substantial variability but still yield significant trends over time.  Conversely, there are also many climate datasets that have relatively little variability but that do not exhibit any significant trends.  It is all too convenient to raise the "too much variability" flag when the time series doesn't give you a trend – but I don't see any concerns over "too much variability" when the statistical analyses yield a trend.

In other words, the same degree of variability apparently becomes a problem when the analysis suggests no climate change, but it is just fine when a trend can be identified.  Heads, we win; tails, you lose.  Sounds like a fine philosophy by which to run a casino, but that simply is not how objective and rigorous publicly funded science should work.

Later on in this article, there is the following statement that appears to entirely contradict the excuse quoted above:

Eleven weather stations gather data in the park, but only the station at Longmire has been operating long enough (since 1909) to show trends that climatologists say are significant.

Wait a minute.  Were we not just told earlier in the article that "the first weather station in the park wasn't installed until 1909, so there's not enough historic data on temperature or snowfall – especially at high altitudes – to establish trends with those numbers"?  And now we are being told that "only the station at Longmire has been operating long enough (since 1909) to show trends that climatologists say are significant."

So data since 1909 is not enough to establish trends, except when data since 1909 is enough to show trends?  Sure, that makes sense.

To get into the data for the area, and see whether it agrees with what is claimed in the article, we will focus on this quote:

Analyzing how Mount Rainier might react to climate change differently than the rest of the Northwest is a mostly unexplored area.

However, according to a draft report prepared this year for the National Park Service by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, the historical record contains some surprises.

As a whole, the Pacific Northwest warmed by 1.4 degrees between 1920 and 2000. Longmire warmed, too, but only .5 degree ...

Evidence of a long-term warming trend at Mount Rainier is obscured by recent periods of lower temperatures and higher than usual snowfall.

While Longmire records show a slight warming trend over the past century, records at Paradise show the average temperature dropped – about 1 degree during that time.

The park's weather stations show no significant trends in either precipitation or snow depth since 1970.

This part of the article claims that "the Pacific Northwest warmed by 1.4 degrees between 1920 and 2000," but elsewhere in the piece we are told that "temperatures across the Pacific Northwest are averaging about 1.4 degrees warmer now than they were in 1895."  Once more: wait a minute.  Did temperatures increase 1.4 degrees between 1895 and 2013 (the latest year with complete data) or between 1920 and 2000?

Using NOAA's own datasets, it looks like neither claim is correct.  Between 1920 and 2000, the increase for the Northwest was 0.96º F, and between 1895 and 2013 it was 1.8º F.  Oh, well – these are just details.  But details are important to science, and to science journalism.

It is that climate station at Longmire that is of fundamental interest, though.  The temperature records do indeed start in 1909, but that year has only six months of complete data.  The first full year of complete data at the site doesn't start until 1915, and 1916, 1924, 1926, 1929, 1945, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, and 2013 all have missing months of data.

So here is the annual temperature series for Longmire since records began:

There is absolutely no sign of a significant trend over the data record, nor between 1920 and 2000.  There is nearly a perfect non-correlation since 1970 (with a correlation towards cooling, not warming).  The same applies over the last three decades, with a correlation – again – towards cooling, not warming.

There appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Longmire's annual temperature has increased over the past century, or in recent decades.

Note the weasel words yet again: "Evidence of a long-term warming trend at Mount Rainier is obscured by recent periods of lower temperatures and higher than usual snowfall."  Higher than usual snowfall obscures warming trends?  Not sure how that "blame snow for colder temperatures" mechanism works.  Usually we get snow because it is cold, not the other way around.

And to state the blazingly obvious, if there are "recent periods of lower temperatures," then the supposed "long-term warming trend" has ended.  But when we look at the data itself, it doesn't appear there ever was a "long-term warming trend" at Rainier.

While it is true that "records at Paradise [another climate station at Mount Rainier] show the average temperature dropped" during the past century, the climate dataset is terribly incomplete. There are only 39 years with complete monthly datasets over this time.  Regardless, the data that remains – fragmented as it is – suggests a century-long cooling trend.  How does one reconcile that, along with the absence of any 100-year-long trend at nearby Longmire, with climate alarmism claims that Rainier's glaciers are melting because of global warming?

Of course, snow and ice can melt without any change in temperature.  For readers that need an example: put an ice cube on the counter and leave the house temperature at 70º F.  The ice cube will melt.  Its melt rate may even accelerate over time as it progressively turns into a puddle.  The temperature hasn't changed, yet the ice is melting.  Basic principles such as this also apply to macroscale features on the landscape such as glaciers and snowfields.

Another theme that permeates the article is that the rapid glacier melt on Mount Rainier is changing the flow regimes – particularly peak flows – on the rivers draining the mountain.  An interesting narrative, but the data is sketchy at best on this front.

For the Nisqually River near National, peak flows have an effectively perfect non-correlation since 1970.  Similar findings are obtained for annual flows and each and every monthly flow series.

Same goes for the Cowlitz River at Packwood with respect to peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows (with the sole exception of November, which has a significant increasing trend).

The same results for the White River near Buckley with regard to peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows (with the only exception being in September, which has a declining trend).

Finally, the same lack of significant trends for the Carbon River near Fairfax in terms of peak flows, annual flows, and monthly flows.

Perhaps the times are not changing as much or as fast on Mount Rainier as some would have us believe?