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Journalism

Jul 27, 2011

CSIRO says sea level claims from Oz expert are dead in the water

The CSIRO is crying foul over a front page article in The Australian last week which "misinterpreted" a report on rising sea levels and claimed the national research body's model for global warming was "already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability".

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The CSIRO is crying foul over a front page article in The Australian last week which “misinterpreted” a report on rising sea levels and claimed the national research body’s model for global warming was “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability”.

Under the title “Sea-level rises are slowing, tidal gauge records show”, journalist Stuart Rintoul reported on a new peer-reviewed study by NSW Office of Environment and Heritage specialist Phil Watson, which found that “based on century-long tide gauge records”  there has been a “consistent trend of weak deceleration” in rising sea levels to the year 2000. At first glance, this appears to contradict the international scientific consensus that sea level rises are accelerating.

Providing colour to the piece were quotes from “climate change researcher” Howard Brady, who took Watson’s cautious conclusions and went much further, claiming that the report raised “questions about the CSIRO’s sea-level predictions,” that the sea level rises accepted by the CSIRO for the 21st century were “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability” and that the divergence between the sea-level trends and the models of those trends was so large that “it is clear there is a serious problem with the models”.

With rising sea level acceleration apparently on the decline, the article suggested without any evidence that instead of a 0.8m rise this century, we could see zero acceleration and “a rise of about 0.15m by 2100.”

These were mighty claims. It did not take long for a skeptical online media outlet to pick apart the article, in particular the role of Howard Brady, the researcher from Macquarie University, and some of the more grandiose claims of the article.

Science blog Deltoid looked into Brady’s qualifications, finding that the “climate change researcher” was actually the retired CEO of oil company Mosiac, his position at Macquarie University appeared to be honorary, and his only “publications” on climate change were “are a couple of letters to the editor in Sydney Morning Herald where he was just as dismissive of sea level change as his now.”

Alarmed with an incorrectly captioned image on the online version of the story on The Australian website (since updated) that said “global warming is not affecting sea levels”, Watson’s employer the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage sent a letter to The Australian stating the article was “untrue and misleading” and that the “research and underlying data is entirely consistent with the rate of global average sea level rise for the 20th century advised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

Angry that Deltoid and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage had accused him of misrepresenting the report, journalist Stuart Rintoul told Crikey that people had “read an incorrect caption on an online version of the story … that’s what they’re complaining about and that’s not in the article … that’s it, it’s very straightforward”. Furthermore, “I’ve had several conversations with Phil Watson, he’s got no complaint with anything that’s in the body of the article.”

“So the idea that I’ve misinterpreted this research is entirely wrong, entirely wrong … I’m seeing this online headline saying ‘Stuart Rintoul misinterprets a scientific paper‘, and it’s …outrageous.”
“As to Howard Brady, he made contact with us, he has published Antarctic research articles in the Antarctic Journal of the United States, Nature, Science, and the English Journal of Geology and Geophysics, and his criticisms of CSIRO modelling were judged newsworthy.”
“The differences between CSIRO modelling and tide gauges is the subject of continuing reportage.”

Crikey phoned Watson, but sensing a public spat of which it wanted no part, a spokesperson for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage banned Watson from talking to the media and called Crikey back, explaining that Watson’s “comments were accurate. The rest of the article was the journalist’s interpretation. He put in that Brady guy’s comments, which were unhelpful.”

However, the biggest repudiation of the article comes from the CSIRO.

Neil White, scientist at Sea Level and Coast Group at CSIRO Marine Research, has provided Crikey with a point-by-point demolition of Brady’s more spurious claims in the article, saying Brady “misinterpreted the paper in front of him.”

On Brady’s claim that the CSIRO models were “already dead in the water as having no sound basis in probability”, White says that “the recent research, if you look at the graphs in the paper, shows recent sea level rises that agree with those calculated by CSIRO … the overall long-term trends shown in the Watson paper agree reasonably well with estimates of global-mean sea level.”

On the claim that the rise in sea levels was decelerating:  “You can’t just say the trend has been so much and we can extrapolate that. It only looks at two places in Australia that aren’t typical.  Yes, the sea level flattened off and then started increasing again. We know the reason  for the flattening off — it’s because a lot of water was retained in man-made dams  in the second half of the 20th century — equivalent to about 30 millimetres of global sea level …  in addition, there was a plateau in global temperature at about this time which would tend to flatten the sea level curve. “

On Brady’s claim that the divergence between the sea-level trends from models and sea-level trends from the tide gauge records was now so great there was a “serious problem” with the models. “This is quite incorrect, in fact if we look at recent estimates of global mean sea levels from measurements and the IPCC projections they agree quite well.”

“If anything, the measurements are towards the high-end of the projections.”

Additional research and interviews by Andrew Crook and Amber Jamieson.

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