HOUSTON - This week you're going to often hear the phrase, "record breaking heat for Houston!" Yesterday we tied a record high and today and tomorrow we're going to break it. Or are we? As TV meteorologists we're obligated to relay official climate information provided to us by NOAA, but as scientists using the scientific method, we often do so knowing it comes with a grain of salt.
Remember what they taught you in school? Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see? There's nowhere greater that this applies than to climate -- specifically, to record keeping. Any direct records comparison with today's Houston weather to that of conditions here before 1969 is bogus, and 62% of our climate records in this month alone, occur before then. Yesterday's tied record high and today's record high may not actually be records.
In this blog, I explain why, what you need to know and what needs to change.
Anyone who lives in Houston can tell you that weather can change dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood -- even just 5 minutes down the road. Isolated summertime thunderstorms can easily reduce temperatures by 20°F in one spot, while just down the street it's still baking under that July afternoon sunshine. In that situation, what do you say the high was?
In winter, a cold front can stall over Houston, leaving northern parts of the city-region like Humble, in the 40s and 50s for highs, while in south Houston like at Hobby airport, it can be in the 60s and 70s all day. Again, in that situation, what do you say the high was? You pick a spot to record temperatures and you stick to it.
The arbitrary spot chosen to record Houston's weather is at Bush Intercontinental Airport, in the extreme northeastern corner of the city limits. It's actually basically in the town of Humble, nearly 20 miles from downtown Houston's skyscrapers. That's been the case since 1969.
Herein lay the problem: It's hard enough to say that, "Houston" received, "2.45 inches of rain" for the day (or whatever was recorded at the official recording station), when parts of Houston may have been left totally dry with stray summer storms. The same is true for temperatures. It could be 92° at the official weather station and 87° elsewhere in the city.
When it comes to the idea of, "record breaking weather" often records are "broken" by only a degree or two -- well within the standard deviation of weather for a city-region.
But BEFORE 1969, the same official weather station, recording temperature, rainfall, snowfall, etc, was placed in downtown Houston -- 20 miles to the south, among concrete and tall office buildings. In fact, when the weather station was in downtown, it was moved four times to completely different downtown locations since its inception in 1881.
So to reference one number as being the benchmark number to compare weather records for a particular date -- especially before 1969 when it was moved 20 miles up the road, is utterly bogus. As a scientist, I tell you that citing records, "for Houston" before 1969 is totally misleading. In today's slang, it's, "fake news." Making determinations today with records that pre-date the move to the Humble area epitomizes the, "junk in, junk out" concept for equations in the scientific method.
Essentially, Houston's reliable records only go back 48 years. In the context of climate, that's not even a blink of the eye, so it's difficult to determine meaningful trends, as to climate changes over the last five decades. To muddle the data further, anyone who's lived here since the 1960s knows this city and its suburbs has grown exponentially, with many more cement surfaces and even more airport tarmac runways, which make temperatures go up around the official weather station.
So as we bask in the sunshine early this week, consider this.
Monday, Houston "tied" (yes in quotes) the record high of 81°, set back in 1911. Well, in 1911, the Houston record-keeping thermometer was located at the Stewart Building, at Preston and Fannin. Today, it's nearly 20 miles north of that location. So, how can we tell the public that we broke the record? It could have easily been 85° where the sensor is located today. Bush IAH is often a few degrees warmer than downtown due to its proximity away from the cooling breezes of Galveston Bay and the Gulf.
Today's record high (for Feb 7th, 2017) is 80°, set back in 1957. On that date, the official weather station was located 20 miles south of its current location. It was at the Federal Building at the corner of Franklin and Fannin. Today it's at Bush IAH. It's reasonable to say that Bush airport today will see a high around 85°, allowing us to firmly break, "the record" set 60 years ago. It's also reasonable to suggest that if you placed a thermometer at the Franklin and Fannin location TODAY, it either not break that record (due to cooling sea breezes or a stray shower), or break the record even more with highs closer to 90°, due to increased concrete, sky scrapers, buses, metro-rail, cars,etc! Thus, to directly compare today's high temperature in Houston to a pre-1969 high temperature when the thermometer was 20 miles away -- and then declare it a, "daily record", is complete poppycock.
Tomorrow's record is 82°, set in 1932. Back then, the station was located at yet another location 20 mile south of it's currents spot, at the Shell Building (Texas an Fanin.) To compare a reading today taken at Bush IAH to readings at the Shell Building is apples to oranges.
This isn't just happening in Houston. It's happening all over country. So before you blindly accept that the US is facing a rash of "record highs" or "record lows", smashing century-old readings, please consider the fact that the much of the benchmark data may be obsolete.
Check out this link to the National Weather Service in Houston, which shows the records highs by day, for our area. Please notice all of the pre-1969 records. I count 18 out of the 29 days of February (leap years included.) That means that for this month alone, greater than 60% of the data is totally bogus!
While many say, "it's the best we've got, and we need to work with what we are given", I say we need to dump all pre-1969 records and compare apples to apples. This is especially important if policies are to be determined by what is essentially bogus data. But that's a conversation for the politicians and I don't intend to go there with this blog.
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