Fox News Maligns Scientists With Baseless Accusation Of "Doctoring" Sea Level Data


Following the lead of the Heartland Institute, Fox News trumpeted the utterly baseless claim that scientists at the University of Colorado are "doctoring" sea level data to "exaggerate the effects of global warming." In reality, the scientists used a standard and transparent procedure performed by other research groups around the world, and even the climate skeptic cited by Fox News objects to the implication that the group engaged in scientific wrongdoing.

Fox News Trumpets Claim That Scientists "Doctor[ed]" Data To "Exaggerate" Climate Change

Last Month Heartland's James Taylor Claimed Research Group "Doctors Sea Level Data" To Exaggerate Climate Change. In May, Taylor published a op-ed accusing the University of Colorado's Sea Level Research Group of "doctor[ing] sea level data." The post was spurred by news that the group adjusted its global mean sea level estimate to account for the fact that ocean basins have deepened, which causes estimates that lack the correction to show less ocean expansion than has actually occurred. From the post:

The NASA-funded group claims glacial melt is removing weight that had been pressing down on land masses, which in turn is causing land mass to rise. This welcome news mitigates sea-level rise from melting glacial ice, meaning sea level will rise less than previously thought. However, it is very inconvenient for alarmist sea level predictions. Therefore, instead of reporting the amount by which sea level is rising in the real world, the Sea Level Research Group has begun adding 0.3 millimeters per year of fictitious sea level rise to "compensate" for rising land mass. [, 5/11/11]

Taylor's Post Inspired Fox News Reporter. According to emails obtained by Media Matters, Fox News' Maxim Lott initially emailed Professor Steve Nerem of the CU Sea Level Research Group to ask "about your response to this argument on a blog." [Email exchange, 5/16/11]

Fox News Article Asks, "Are Climate Scientists Doctoring The Data?" From Maxim Lott's June 17 article titled, "Changing Tides: Research Center Under Fire For 'Adjusted' Sea-Level Data":

Is climate change raising sea levels, as Al Gore has argued - or are climate scientists doctoring the data?

The University of Colorado's Sea Level Research Group decided in May to add 0.3 millimeters - or about the thickness of a fingernail - every year to its actual measurements of sea levels, sparking criticism from experts who called it an attempt to exaggerate the effects of global warming.

"Gatekeepers of our sea level data are manufacturing a fictitious sea level rise that is not occurring," said James M. Taylor, a lawyer who focuses on environmental issues for the Heartland Institute.

Steve Nerem, the director of the widely relied-upon research center, told that his group added the 0.3 millimeters per year to the actual sea level measurements because land masses, still rebounding from the ice age, are rising and increasing the amount of water that oceans can hold.

"We have to account for the fact that the ocean basins are actually getting slightly bigger... water volume is expanding," he said, a phenomenon they call glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA).

Taylor calls it tomfoolery.

"There really is no reason to do this other than to advance a political agenda," he said. [, 6/17/11]

Fox Nation Promotes Article. From Fox Nation on June 18:

[Fox Nation, 6/18/11]

Research Group Made Standard Adjustment To Global Sea Level Estimate

Expert: "There Should Be Nothing Controversial About The Necessity Of Making This Correction." W.R. Peltier, University of Toronto physicist and director of the Centre for Global Change Science published research in 2001 and in subsequent years showing that the correction was necessary. In an email, Peltier stated that the adjustment "has always been included in the analyses" conducted by "the leading European scientist working in this area" and "there should be nothing controversial about the necessity of making this correction":

The physical reason for the necessity of this adjustment to the atimetric satellite measurements of global sea level rise is due to the fact that, due to the large mass of water that was added to the ocean basins during the last deglaciation event of the Late Quaternary ice-age, the ocean basins are continuing to subside of average by this amount.

I'm assuming that the adjustment that Nerem has been making to his analysis of the satellite altimetry observations is this adjustment that I have previously shown to be required. Presumably he has referenced by original papers in deciding to include. It has always been included in the analyses being perfomed by the group of Anny Cazenave who is the leading European scientist working in this area.

There should be nothing controversial about the necessity of making this correction. Since the need of it was established 10 years ago I'm surprised that it should be attracting attention! [Email exchange, 6/19/11]

CU Research Group: Adjustment Is Performed By "Nearly All Research Groups Around The World." In a June 8 post, the Sea Level Research Group explained:

Averaged over the global ocean surface, the mean rate of sea level change due to GIA is independently estimated from models at -0.3 mm/yr (Peltier, 2002, 2009). The magnitude of this correction is small (smaller than the ±0.4 mm/yr uncertainty of the estimated GMSL rate), but the GIA uncertainty is at least 50 percent. However, since the ocean basins are getting larger due to GIA, this will reduce by a very small amount the relative sea level rise that is seen along the coasts.


Prior to release 2011_rel1, we did not account for GIA in estimates of the global mean sea level rate, but this correction is now scientifically well-understood and is applied to GMSL estimates by nearly all research groups around the world. Including the GIA correction has the effect of increasing previous estimates of the global mean sea level rate by 0.3 mm/yr. [University of Colorado, 6/8/11]

  • Scientist Told Fox Reporter That Other Groups Apply The Same Correction, But Fox Did Not Report It. According to a May 18 email exchange provided to Media Matters, Steve Nerem told Fox News' Maxim Lott that "This is scientifically a well-understood correction - several other research groups around the world apply it to their sea level data." However, Lott failed to include this information in his article. [Email exchange, 5/18/11]

Glaciologist Tad Pfeffer: These "Are Standard Corrections" And "Very Well Understood." Contacted through the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, University of Colorado glaciologist Tad Pfeffer, who is not part of the sea level research group, stated via email:

What Prof. Nerem calls Glacio-isostatic Adjustment (GIA) corrections are standard corrections that are used in a wide variety of sea level measurements by many scientists. There are many papers published on GIA corrections, and the reasons for making them are very well understood. [Email exchange, 6/19/11]

CU Research Group Was Completely Transparent About The Adjustment

Sea Level Research Group Publicly Announced The Adjustment Prior To Criticism By Taylor. In a May 5 post on the website of the University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group, Steve Nerem announced the correction and added, "Simply subtract -.3mm/year if you prefer to not include the GIA correction":

Welcome to the new webpages from the University of Colorado sea level group! We apologize for the delay in updating our sea level releases, but the transition to these new web pages took longer than we thought. In addition, we have made many improvements to our data (new orbits, new tide model, new corrections) which ultimately had little effect on global mean sea level, but brought us up to date with the latest advances in the field.

One important change in these releases is that we are now adding a correction of 0.3 mm/year due to Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA), so you may notice that the rate of sea level rise is now 0.3 mm/year higher than earlier releases. This is a correction to account for the fact that the global ocean basins are getting slightly larger over time as mantle material moves from under the oceans into previously glaciated regions on land. Simply subtract 0.3 mm/year if you prefer to not include the GIA correction. [University of Colorado, 5/5/11]

The Data Release Itself Includes Note Stating That The Correction Was Applied. The Sea Level Research Group's latest data release includes a note stating: "Included global mean glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) correction of -0.3 mm/yr (Peltier, 2009 & Peltier, 2002) for all missions." [University of Colorado, 5/4/11]

Adjustment Is Used To Produce A Meaningful Estimate Of Global Sea Level

CU Research Group: Correction Ensures That Data "Reflect Purely Oceanographic Phenomena." In a June 8 post, the Sea Level Research Group explained that "we apply a correction for GIA because we want our sea level time series to reflect purely oceanographic phenomena ... This is what is needed for comparisons to global climate models, for example, and other oceanographic datasets":

There are many different scientific questions that are being asked where GMSL [global mean sea level] measurements can contribute. We are focused on just a few of these:

1. How is the volume of the ocean changing?

2. How much of this is due to thermal expansion?

3. How much of this is due to addition of water that was previously stored as ice on land?

In order to answer these questions, we have to account for the fact that the ocean is actually getting bigger due to GIA at the same time as the water volume is expanding. This means that if we measure a change in GMSL of 3 mm/yr, the volume change is actually closer to 3.3 mm/yr because of GIA. Removing known components of sea level change, such as GIA or the solid earth and ocean tides, reveals the remaining signals contained in the altimetry measurement. These can include water volume changes, steric effects, and the interannual variability caused by events such as the ENSO. We apply a correction for GIA because we want our sea level time series to reflect purely oceanographic phenomena. In essence, we would like our GMSL time series to be a proxy for ocean water volume changes. This is what is needed for comparisons to global climate models, for example, and other oceanographic datasets. [University of Colorado, 6/8/11]

Pfeffer: "If You Want To Find Out What Sea Level Is Doing Globally, Or Find Out Why It's Rising, You Have To Do The GIA Correction." CU Glaciologist Tad Pfeffer stated via email:

GIA corrections are made to distinguish between the part of sea level rise that comes from changes in the ocean (ocean water expanding and new water entering the ocean) from the part of sea level rise that comes from the land surface changing elevation, or the ocean basin changing volume. As Prof. John Christy says in the Fox News item, no one disputes that "sea level rise is what's measured against the actual coast," but if you want to find out what sea level is doing globally, or find out why it's rising, you have to do the GIA correction. In Norway, for example, the land surface is rising at some 3 cm per year because it's recovering from the removal of an ice sheet that was there about 15-20 thousand years ago. So even if the ocean was experiencing no change, the coast is rising and it would look like sea level was going down in Scandinavia. At the same time, the mouth of the Mississippi River at New Orleans is sinking at about 4 mm per year because of the weight of sediments being added by the river. There, sea level would appear to be rising even if the ocean wasn't changing. So looking at both Norway and New Orleans, without making some correction for local land elevation changes, what could you say about what sea level is doing globally? That's why Nerem and many other scientists studying sea level apply corrections like the GIA correction.

Changes in land elevation also change the shape of the ocean basins slightly, and that change in shape alters the level at which ocean water stands in the basin. The height that water stands in a glass would change if you poured it from a tall skinny glass in a short wide glass, but you wouldn't think that the amount of water had changed just because the height changed. Again, that's the kind of correction that Nerem and his colleagues make to the observational sea level record - just as Christy says, locally what matters is where the water stands relative to the land, but if you want to understand what's happening to the ocean globally you have to work out these corrections. [Email exchange, 6/19/11]

CU Data Was Not Intended To Measure Sea Level Changes Relative To The Coasts. The CU Sea Level Research Group provides an estimate of the global mean sea level from satellite information, which differs from relative sea level, a fact that Fox completely obscured. From a May 18 post by the research group:

The global mean sea level (GMSL) we estimate is an average over the oceans (limited by the satellite inclination to ± 66 degrees latitude), and it cannot be used to predict relative sea level changes along the coasts. As an average, it indicates the general state of the sea level across the oceans and not any specific location. Local tide gauges measure the sea level at a single location relative to the local land surface, a measurement referred to as "relative sea level" (RSL). Because the land surfaces are dynamic, with some locations rising (e.g., Hudson Bay due to GIA) or sinking (e.g., New Orleans due to subsidence), relative sea level changes are different across world coasts. To understand the relative sea level effects of global oceanic volume changes (as estimated by the GMSL) at a specific location, issues such as GIA, tectonic uplift, and self attraction and loading (SAL, e.g., Tamisiea et al., 2010), must also be considered.


GMSL is a good indicator of changes in the volume of water in the oceans due to mass influx (e.g., land ice melt) and density changes (e.g., thermal expansion), and is therefore of interest in detecting climate change. [University of Colorado, 5/18/11]

IPCC: "To Extract The Signal Of Sea Level Change Due To Ocean Water Volume And Other Oceanographic Change, Land Motions Need To Be Removed." From the 2007 report by Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Processes in several nonlinearly coupled components of the Earth system contribute to sea level change, and understanding these processes is therefore a highly interdisciplinary endeavour. On decadal and longer time scales, global mean sea level change results from two major processes, mostly related to recent climate change, that alter the volume of water in the global ocean: i) thermal expansion (Section 5.5.3), and ii) the exchange of water between oceans and other reservoirs (glaciers and ice caps, ice sheets, other land water reservoirs - including through anthropogenic change in land hydrology, and the atmosphere; Section 5.5.5). All these processes cause geographically non-uniform sea level change (Section 5.5.4) as well as changes in the global mean; some oceanographic factors (e.g., changes in ocean circulation or atmospheric pressure) also affect sea level at the regional scale, while contributing negligibly to changes in the global mean. Vertical land movements such as resulting from glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA), tectonics, subsidence and sedimentation influence local sea level measurements but do not alter ocean water volume; nonetheless, they affect global mean sea level through their alteration of the shape and hence the volume of the ocean basins containing the water.

Measurements of present-day sea level change rely on two different techniques: tide gauges and satellite altimetry (Section 5.5.2). Tide gauges provide sea level variations with respect to the land on which they lie. To extract the signal of sea level change due to ocean water volume and other oceanographic change, land motions need to be removed from the tide gauge measurement. Land motions related to GIA can be simulated in global geodynamic models. The estimation of other land motions is not generally possible unless there are adequate nearby geodetic or geological data, which is usually not the case. However, careful selection of tide gauge sites such that records reflecting major tectonic activity are rejected, and averaging over all selected gauges, results in a small uncertainty for global sea level estimates (Appendix 5.A.4). Sea level change based on satellite altimetry is measured with respect to the Earth's centre of mass, and thus is not distorted by land motions, except for a small component due to large-scale deformation of ocean basins from GIA. [IPCC Working Group 1, 2007]

Failing To Account For GIA Can "Significantly Bias Our Understanding Of The Magnitude And Sources Of Present-Day Global Sea Level Rise." From a paper in Oceanography by Drs. Mark E. Tamisiea and Jerry X. Mitrovica:

As ice sheets gain or lose mass, and as water moves between the continents and the ocean, the solid Earth deforms and the gravitational field of the planet is perturbed. Both of these effects lead to regional patterns in sea level change that depart dramatically from the global average. Understanding these patterns will lead to better constraints on the various contributors to the observed sea level change and, ultimately, to more robust projections of future changes. In both of these applications, a key step is to apply a correction to sea level observations, based on data from tide gauges, satellite altimetry, or gravity, to remove the contaminating signal that is due to the ongoing Earth response to the last ice age. Failure to accurately account for this so-called glacial isostatic adjustment has the potential to significantly bias our understanding of the magnitude and sources of present-day global sea level rise. [Oceanography, 2011]

Even Climate Skeptic Quoted By Fox Objects To Accusation Of Wrongdoing

Fox Suggested John Christy Accused CU Of Attempting "To Exaggerate The Effects Of Global Warming." The second paragraph of the article states that the adjustment to the sea level research group's global mean sea level data is "sparking criticism from experts who called it an attempt to exaggerate the effects of global warming." The article quoted two experts: James Taylor of the Heartland Institute and John Christy, a climate scientist who is listed among the Heartland Institute's approved experts who "dispute the notion that 'global warming is a crisis'":

Climate scientist John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said that the amount of water in the ocean and sea level were two different things.

"To me ... sea level rise is what's measured against the actual coast," he told "That's what tells us the impact of rising oceans."

Taylor agreed.

"Many global warming alarmists say that vast stretches of coastline are going to be swallowed up by the sea. Well, that means we should be talking about sea level, not about global water volume." [, 6/17/11]

Christy: "I Would Object To Making That Accusation." When asked if he agrees with the implication that the CU scientists were motivated by an intent to mislead people about the effects of global warming, Christy stated: "I would object to making that accusation. What they did was defensible from a purely scientific point of view, but a little misleading from a practical point of view." Christy also said that the sea level adjustment "is not my area of specific research." [Email exchange, 6/17/11, 6/20/11]

Who Is James M. Taylor?

James M. Taylor Is A Lawyer From Right-Wing Heartland Institute. Taylor is managing editor of the libertarian Heartland Institute's Environment & Climate News and a senior fellow focusing on environmental policy. Taylor has a law degree from Syracuse University. [Heartland Institute, accessed 6/19/11]

  • Heartland Institute: Policymakers Should Do "Nothing" About Climate Change. From "About Global Warming Facts" by The Heartland Institute:

If global warming is not a crisis, what should policymakers do about it? The answer, obviously, is "nothing." This is not a problem that needs to be solved. The case should be marked "closed" and policymakers should move on to other, more important, issues. [Heartland Institute, accessed 6/19/11]

  • Heartland Institute Was Tied To Phillip Morris, Claims Secondhand Smoke Is "No Danger." The Heartland Institute published an article titled: "Scientific Evidence Shows Secondhand Smoke Is No Danger." It states: "Millions of dollars have been spent promoting belief in SHS as a killer, and more millions of dollars have been spent by businesses in order to comply with thousands of highly restrictive bans, while personal choice and freedom have been denied to millions of smokers." [Heartland Institute, 7/08] The Heartland Institute has recieved funding from Phillip Morris, an executive of which also sat on Heartland's board of directors. [Heartland Institute, accessed 6/20/11] The American Journal of Public Health reported in July 2010 that in the 1900s, "To supplement direct outreach, Philip Morris organized grassroots lobbying by right-leaning think tanks. At Philip Morris's request, for example, Heartland Institute staff met with 2 Republican congressmen 'to encourage opposition to the Clinton plan and FET [Federal Excise Tax] hikes.'" [American Journal of Public Health, July 2010, via Nexis]
  • Heartland Institute Receives Funding From Energy Companies. According to the organization's website, the Heartland Institute receives 34 percent of its income from corporations, including "5 percent from energy producers." [Heartland Institute, accessed 6/19/11]

Taylor: It's "Alarmist Propaganda" To Say That "Global Warming Is A Human-Caused Problem That Needs To Be Addressed." From a June 1 op-ed by Taylor:

So how did Chris Christie manage to buy into the alarmist propaganda that global warming is a human-caused problem that needs to be addressed?

It didn't help that Christie appears to have sought the counsel of only one side of the debate. Christie said he "sat down with experts both inside the government and outside the administration in academia and other places to discuss the issue in depth." Christie did indeed recently invite alarmists from Rutgers University to meet with him about global warming. But Christie has identified no such skeptics with whom he has met. [, 6/1/11]

Taylor: IPCC Is "The Star Chamber Of The Global Warming Cartel." From a May 25 op-ed by Taylor:

While Harold Camping spends this week trying to wipe egg off his face after real-world events spectacularly falsified his prediction that the Christian rapture would occur on May 21, global warming alarmists are similarly trying to wipe egg off their faces after real-world events spectacularly falsified their predictions of an imminent polar ice rapture.


The Star Chamber of global warming cartels, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), claimed in its most recent report that global warming is likely to rapture away the Himalayan glaciers by 2035. When investigators discovered there was no scientific evidence to support the claim, and a good deal of scientific evidence countering the claim, the rapture prediction was canceled. [, 5/25/11]

Taylor Suggests That Addressing Global Warming Will Cause A Return To "The Little Ice Age" That Spawned "The Black Death." From a June 15 op-ed by Taylor:

Mitt Romney spoke on behalf of many earlier this month when he told a town hall meeting that (1) the planet has recently warmed and (2) humans have contributed to this warming. Romney then made the questionable assertion that we must do something to change this.

Since when were the Little Ice Age and the Black Death the Good Old Days? Since when did the growth in crop production, decline in famine and plague, lengthening of human life spans, and enrichment of the earth's biosphere become things to fight tooth-and-nail simply because they would not have "naturally" occurred but for human intervention?

This nonsensical yearning for the Good Old Days of naturally bleak weather, famine, and the Black Plague has its roots in the near-religious myth that anything humans do to affect the natural course of Mother Earth is evil and wrong. Few will dispute that the naturally occurring Medieval Warm Period was good for the human condition and the biosphere. Few will dispute that the naturally occurring Little Ice Age was harmful to the human condition and the biosphere. Yet when evidence suggests humans are contributing - in whatever small measure - to the Modern Warm Period that has rescued us from the depths of the oppressive Little Ice Age, not only Big Government liberals but many self-professed Small Government conservatives tell us we need to do everything possible to restore the climate to The Natural Condition of the oppressive Little Ice Age. [, 6/15/11]

Who Is Reporter Maxim Lott?

Maxim Lott Smeared Kevin Jennings, Had To Issue A Correction. On September 30, 2009, Maxim Lott reported as fact that more 21 years ago, as a young teacher in Massachusetts, Kevin Jennings "didn't report that a 15-year-old boy told him that he was having sex with an older man."

At the time, there was substantial evidence available that Lott's claim was false. As Media Matters pointed out, a publicly available 2004 letter from Jennings' lawyer stated that the student was actually 16 years old when the conversation took place. The Massachusetts age of consent is -- and was at the time -- 16; Jennings was under no obligation to report anything. (The student later said that he "had no sexual contact with anybody at the time.")

On October 1, after reporting as fact that the student was "15," Lott apparently decided to check whether this claim was true. As Media Matters revealed, Lott sent a Facebook message to the student, asking if the "rumor" - which Lott had already reported as fact -- that he was 15 at the time was "accurate."

On October 2, two days after Lott's story ran, Media Matters published a statement from the student and a copy of his driver's license, definitively proving that he was 16 at the time of his conversation with Jennings. That same day, the student wrote to Lott and demanded a correction. Eventually, Fox added the following editor's note to the top of Lott's article: "Since this story was originally published, the former student referred to as 'Brewster' has stepped forward to reveal that he was 16 years old, not 15, at the time of the incident described in this report." [Media Matters, 12/14/09]

Fox News Has Long Established Itself As Source Of Unreliable And Misleading Climate Coverage

Fox Boss Ordered Staff To Cast Doubt On Temperature Record. In the midst of global climate change talks in December 2009, a top Fox News official sent an email questioning the "veracity of climate change data" and ordering the network's journalists to "refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question." [Media Matters, 12/15/10]

Opponents Of EPA Climate Action Dominate Fox Airwaves. Media Matters analyzed television news guests who discussed the Environmental Protection Agency's role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from December 2009 through April 2011. Driven largely by Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, results show that in 76 percent of those appearances, the guest was opposed to EPA regulations while 18 percent were in favor. Of the appearances by elected officials, 86 percent were Republican. Only one guest in 17 months of coverage across nine news outlets was a climate scientist -- industry-funded Patrick Michaels. [Media Matters, 6/7/11]

Fox Escalates War On Climate Science As House GOP Readies Attack On EPA. As congressional Republicans drafted legislation to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, Fox repeatedly promoted the view that "there is no global warming," dismissing the extensive body of evidence supporting the scientific consensus on climate change. [Media Matters, 2/4/11] Tries To Debunk Global Warming, Fails Miserably. In an article titled, "Five Reasons the Planet May Not Be Its Hottest Ever," sought to debunk the fact that Earth has warmed over the past 30 years, as well as the notion that human activity has contributed to the warming. But Fox largely ignored climate science and botched basic facts in the article, portions of which "are utter nonsense" and "do not make sense" according to climatologists consulted by Media Matters, including one of the skeptics cited by Fox. [Media Matters, 1/27/11]

Fox News' Top 10 Lies About Climate Science. Fox News has done more than any other major news outlet in the United States to sow confusion about climate change. See Fox News' top 10 climate science distortions here.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Maxim Lott, James M. Taylor
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