What happened to NASA’s missing weather satellites & their vital data about global warming?

Summary: The world has a new and serious mystery, right up there with “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” and “The President’s plane is missing!” What happened to NASA’s satellites that measure global temperatures? They appear to have disappeared from the nation’s major newspapers, their valuable information about global warming lost from view. Today’s post retrieves it to help you understand one of the top public policy issues of our time.  {1st of 2 posts today.}



  1. Where are NASA’s satellites?
  2. How warm was May?
  3. Watch the trend in temperatures!
  4. Climate models predict too much heat.
  5. Who measures the world’s temperature?
  6. For More Information.
  7. Another view of the satellites.
  8. Giving the IPCC the last word.

(1)  Where are NASA’s satellites?

NASA has launched a fleet of satellites which (among other things) since 1979 have measured Earth’s temperature in the lower troposphere, with better coverage and consistency than the surface temperature networks — with their spotty coverage of the world’s seas and scores of national weather bureaus (many poorly funded) that the collect land temperatures. Being careful and thorough, NASA pays two teams to analyze the data:  Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Here are the satellites whose sensors — at vast cost — have driven the RSS dataset since 1979, among the most valuable results from the space program (see the end of the post for a more detailed chart).

Satellites used by RSS
Plot of which satellites are used for each month to construct the MSU/AMSU TLS dataset of Remotes Sensing Systems.

Oddly, the results of the satellites’ temperature measurements have almost disappeared from much of the news. As a crude measure, there are 2,970 Google News stories in the past year mentioning “hottest year”, but only 637 (21%) include the word “satellite” — and few of those are in the mainstream news. For example, per Google News only 1 of the many “hottest year” stories in the New York Times include both terms, 2 of the 49 science articles in the Washington Post (here and here), and 6 of the 17 in the Wall Street Journal.

The eclipse of this data is mysterious since it would provides a contrary perspective to the “hottest year” stories, since neither RSS nor UAH shows 2014 as a record (details here). But whatever the reason, we need not rely on journalists to tell us the expensive findings of this NASA research.

(2) How warm was May?

The UAH team publishes easy to understand monthly reports.  They show a world that has warmed since 1979 — but only slightly (few alarmists know this; even fewer admit it).

The May 2015 Global Temperature Report

By the Earth System Science Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville
(Blue is cooler than normal; red is warmer}. Click to enlarge.

UAH: TLT global temperature in May 2015
Click to enlarge. Graph from the Earth System Science Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
  • Global climate trend since 16 November 1978: +0.11°C (0.19°F) per decade.
  • Global composite temp.: +0.27°C (about 0.49°F) above 30-year average for May.
  • May 2015 had the third highest global average May temperature in the 38-year global satellite temperature record (followed by 1998 and 2010).
  • Anomalies are computed per the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recommended method, comparing the current temperatures vs. a 30 year base period ending with the latest decade.

That warming has not, however, been uniform around the globe. The warmest area was on the southwestern edge of the Kara Sea, north of central Russia near the town of Amderma, with an average of 4.77°C (about 8.59°F) warmer than seasonal norms. The coolest average temperature was in East Antarctica near Davis Station, where the average May 2015 temperature was 3.31°C (about 5.96°F) cooler than normal.

(3) Watch the trend in temperatures!

Our East African plains ape perceptual systems are not good at discerning statistical trends, so UAH shows the temperature history in two forms. First, bar graphs of the annual temperature anomalies in tenths of a degree Centigrade. These show the cool 1970s, the transitional 1990s, the step up during the 1998 El Nino, and the warm 2000s.

UAH: graph of May global temperature anomalies
Click to enlarge. Graph from the Earth System Science Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

A monthly graph by Roy Spencer, principal scientist on the UAH team, shows a more common perspective — in which the pause is more easily seen.  Also, you see no record high temperature in recent years.

UAH: LT global temperature trend thru May 2015
Click to enlarge. University of Alabama-Huntsville satellite data.

The Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) data comes from a different mix of satellites with a different algorithm, and results almost identical to UAH (these calculate anomalies from the base period of 1979-1998). A graph of their short-term trend clearly shows the most recent 3 years of the pause…

Monthly global temperature from RSS through May 2015

RSS: Global TLT temperature trend thru May 2015.
RSS: Global TLT temperature trend thru May 2015.

(4)  Since 1980 climate models have predicted too much heat.

Here is a comparison of actual global average temperature from Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) vs. forecasts of the major climate models (yellow band) from 1979 – 2008. The gap has continued to widen since then as the RSS line remains flat while the forecast increases; understanding why is a major focus in climate science today.

Remote Sensing Systems: compare data vs models
Click to enlarge. From Remote Sensing Systems.

The thick black line is the observed time series from RSS V3.3 MSU/AMSU Temperatures. The yellow band is the 5% to 95% range of output from CMIP-5 climate simulations. The mean value of each time series average from 1979-1984 is set to zero so the changes over time can be more easily seen. Note that after 1998, the observations are likely to be below the simulated values, indicating that the simulation as a whole are predicting too much warming.

CMIP-5 is model output from Phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, as used in the IPCC’s AR5).

(5) Who measures the world’s temperature using satellites?

Who are the 2 teams that NASA contracts with to produce global temperature datasets from satellites? First, the UAH team (from their monthly reports)…

As part of an ongoing joint project between UAHuntsville, NOAA and NASA, Christy and Dr. Roy Spencer, an ESSC principal scientist, use data gathered by advanced microwave sounding units on NOAA and NASA satellites to get accurate temperature readings for almost all regions on the Earth. This includes remote desert, ocean and rain forest areas where reliable climate data are not otherwise available.

The satellite based instruments measure the temperature of the atmosphere from the surface up to an altitude of about eight kilometers above sea level.

John R. Christy is Professor of Atmospheric Science at U Al-Huntsville, and Director of their Earth System Science Center (ESSC). He is also Alabama’s State Climatologist. See his full profile and publications here. Roy Spencer is a principal research scientist at the ESSC and member of the Affiliated Faculty at UAL-Huntsville.

Second, there is Remote Sensing Systems

Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) is a scientific research company located in Northern California, specializing in satellite microwave remote sensing of the Earth. Established in 1974 by Frank J. Wentz, Remote Sensing Systems, presently, consists of a team of atmospheric, oceanic, and earth scientists and support personnel.  Meet our Team. Remote Sensing Systems is a world leader in processing and analyzing microwave data from satellite microwave sensors.

Truth Will Make You Free

(6) For More Information

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also, see these posts about the pause …

(7)  A look at the satellites who have told us so much about our world

UAH report about v6 - figure 7
Click to enlarge. From UAH report about version 6.

(8)  Giving the IPCC the last word

“It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”

— From the IPCC’s AR5 Working Group I report.

20 thoughts on “What happened to NASA’s missing weather satellites & their vital data about global warming?

  1. Is there any chance of plotting the smoothed RSS against UAH and also getting the correlation coef? This would be powerful evidence for consistency.

    1. socialbill,

      That would be interesting to see! However I am not a climate scientists and so don’t do climate science. It’s unclear to me why so many amateurs (including economists) believe it’s so easy that anyone can do it.

      There will be peer-reviewed research on the various atmospheric warming datasets following the substantial revisions in some of the surface data and the smaller UAH revisions. These things move slowly, however. Here’s a paper about the UAH revisions, including cites to some papers. Note that the RSS data, the new version 6.0 of UAH, and the radiosonde balloon data now show very similar trends. More detail on that will help climate scientists, but I doubt will provide useful information to laypeople interested in the public policy implications.

  2. Several comments on Spencer et al paper on version 6.0 of UAH data. 1) This gives you a detailed look at how much data analysis must be done. (It is much the same in observational astronomy.) They should be commended for not just referring to previous papers on data analysis. and allowing non-specialists to see their procedures.

    2) They have been analyzing data starting from 37 yrs ago with code in FORTRAN(!) starting 25 yrs ago written by generations of scientists. This is again similar to a situation in astronomy in which everybody was depending on a stellar atmosphere code (spaghetti code also in FORTRAN). There is no academic payoff careerwise for rewriting code like this. Good luck on rewriting 9000 lines of code!

    3) Their revised estimate of overall atmospheric warming is about 20% less than previously due to somewhat different weights mainly in altitude and also revised “footprints’ etc. This is very believable.

    1. Social Bill,

      I agree that UAH gets bonus points for transparency.

      Their work reminds us of 2 important things:

      (1) Almost no weather/climate data is usable in raw form (for satellite data there is no “raw” temperature data). Even the state-of-the art data requires years of adjustments (e.g., the ARGO system). Right-wing critics often mindlessly insist that only the raw data is meaningful (much like their equally foolish war on economic stats).

      (2) Science tends to occur on the frontiers of the current instrument’s resolution. In climate science the adjustments are often as large as or larger than the trends.

      It’s never simple.

    2. Reminds me also of the rightwing crusade a few years back to eliminate all statistical adjustments and corrections from the census data and use only raw data. The fact that the inherent biases in the raw data skew towards undercounting in poor and other presumably Democrat leaning areas doesn’t change their dedication, no surprise.

    3. gzuckier,

      I had forgotten about that! Note the right-wing crusade against seasonal adjustments on website such as Zero Hedge. For years they’d announce the imminent crash by showing typical swings in non-seasonally adjusted data — without mentioning that it was NSA. Now they’re a giant on the web. That’s how to succeed on the info superhighway in 21st C America!

    1. Yorick,

      Science is about making predictions. Not only is this one of the ways it generates value for society, this is how models are tested. It’s good that they make their predictions available to the public.

      I agree with your implicit criticism that NASA appears to have greater confidence in their 50 – 85 year forecasts than prudent. They have always been bold, so they’re being true to their tradition. (You get bonus points for the Shakespeare reference!)

  3. UAH took 34 years (until 2013) to finally release their code and they were found to have major problems before that and had to recalibrate their findings after ‘fixing’ their problems on a few occasions, they are the opposite of ‘transparent’, as you claim.
    If you go to RSS’s website they have a number of graphs that show the planet has warmed over the same period, you have simply chosen one that shows what you want to show. They also have had data problems as noted by Dr Roy Spencer (UAH) on his website in a feature article.
    So no wonder NOAA/NASA use their versions from their satellites and not UAH – RSS versions.

    1. Hahnel,

      (1) “recalibrate their findings… “They also have had data problems as noted by Dr Roy Spencer (UAH) on his website in a feature article.”

      Every major temperature dataset has “recalibrated” their findings; they all have “problems”. The surface temperature datasets have done so repeated, with significant changes. Also, version 6 of UAH resolved those “problems”, moving it into agreement with RSS.

      (2) “If you go to RSS’s website they have a number of graphs that show the planet has warmed over the same period”

      Did you read the post? First, this post shows graphs from the RSS website for the entire satellite history (section 4). Second, the RSS and UAH data were quite similar before the latest UAH revision, and are now almost identical. Third, the graphs shown shown that the Earth has warmed since 1979 (start of data) but been in a pause since roughly 2000.

      (3) “So no wonder NOAA/NASA use their versions from their satellites and not UAH – RSS versions.”

      False. UAH and RSS are the NASA versions (i.e., they are produced under NASA contract). NASA does not produce their own version.

  4. I have two words for you that might explain what you are clearly so puzzled about (i.e,the missing rise in the earth’s mean temperature) and those two words are:

    (1) latent (2) heat.

    1. Byran,

      “what you are clearly so puzzled about (i.e,the missing rise in the earth’s mean temperature)”

      (1) To what are you referring in this post?

      (2) There are scores of papers in the peer-reviewed literature discussing the causes of the pause — many contradictory (i.e., there is no consensus). If you have the answer, I suggest you publish. Fame and fortune awaits!

  5. Solid water (ice) is the most ordered state of H20 while gas is the least ordered. In order for ice to go from an ice to a liquid state, energy must be added to cause the ice to go from a higher state to a lower ordered state. When ice melts or water evaporates, energy must be taken from the environment in order for the ice or liquid to move to a less ordered state. Energy is needed to weaken the individual hydrogen bonds between H20 molecules. When water (in any of the three phrases) moves from a higher to a lower ordered state, the air surrounding the H20 will have heat subtracted from it.


    By all accounts, the total amount of ice covering the earth is decreasing, and the energy needed to melt this ice would be accounted for by the latent heat necessary to melt it. This then would also account for the pause in warming.

    Once all the ice is melted, then the real heating will begin!

  6. Sometimes the simplest answers can be lurking right under your nose!

    Do you deny that the earth is experiencing an overall decline in the total amount of ice cover?

    Or do you deny that what you so mockingly refer to as “high school science” (which, however, is still a very real physical phenomenon) could not be a factor in the current pause in global warming?

  7. It appears that 9 of the top 10 hottest years in the UAH v6.0 dataset occurred this century and just about every year since 2001 ranks in the top 15 hottest years.

    1. Ed,

      Yes. The world has been warming since the early 19thC (when the Little Ice Age ended). Hence the flattening of warming ~2000 would leave the the years since then the hottest. When you reach the top of a staircase you’re on the hottest stair.

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