Some anthropogenic global heating (AGH) skeptics deny that any global heating is occurring. I figured out a way that could be used to refute them. A weighted average of all of the thermal points on the Earth could be computed on a daily basis. These thermal points are obtained from thermal images.

These points would be satellite resolution distance apart. This would provide an actual measure of global heating. We could subtract out the effects of cities and volcanoes by simply ignoring every value above a certain threshold. One example of such a threshold would be the average of all of the points for that day.

Would this be a reasonable way to double check the trend of global temperature anomalies?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2019 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Hi polcott! I have removed the graphs from the question, because they are completely irrelevant to the question about the measurability of temperature trends from space. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2019 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


Measuring long-term temperature trends from satellites is possible, but difficult due to a variety of reasons.

This is ongoing research.

In short: the satellites that have been around long enough were built for measuring weather, not climate, and the standards to which instruments need to be built to measure one are entirely different from the other.

We have had satellite measurements of the atmosphere since the 1960s, and operationally since the late 1970s. Those have always included infrared radiometer measurements, which means that, in principle, we can construct a record of surface (both land and sea) and atmospheric temperatures for the past 40 years at least. The sensors themselves aren't very complicated — but to determine a trend we would need to be very confident about their uncertainty, stability, and inter-satellite variability.

If you were to simply take 40 years of HIRS infrared measurements and plot them, you don't know if the changes are due to atmospheric or instrumental changes.

From 2015 to 2019, I was part of the FIDUCEO project which aimed to bring the science of metrology (science of measurement) to satellite observations. Taking 40 years of AVHRR (for sea surface temperature) or HIRS (for atmospheric temperature and humidity) measurements, with 16 different editions of the instrument over a period of 40 years. But AVHRR was built to look at pictures of clouds. If you look at pictures of clouds, the user doesn't care if one satellite has its pictures 0.5% brighter than the previous one. They just tweak their monitor a bit! But if you take the global climate system, then that corresponds to more than 1K temperature difference, which for the oceans, would be huge. In FIDUCEO, we aimed to:

  • Develop a metrology of Earth Observation
  • Produce Fundamental Climate Data Records (FCDRs) for various operational meteorological instruments in visible, infrared, and microwave, meaning:
    • Per-datum metrologically traceable uncertainty characterisation;
    • Per-datum information on correlation structures: which component of the error estimate cancels out when averaging and which component remains;
    • Harmonisation between the various satellite sensors.

Here are 40 years of HIRS (versions 2, 3, and 4), on which we tried to do some harmonisation. The top panel shows global average brightness temperature per 24-hour period, as measured by channel 2 which IIRC peaks somewhere in the stratosphere, so this would correspond roughly to an atmospheric temperature somewhere up in the stratosphere (which, incidentally, is cooling as the Earth's surface is warming):

40 years of HIRS

The different colours indicate different satellites. As you can see, there are both jumps between satellites, and trends within one satellite. Some of this is expected, as polar-orbiting sun-synchronous satellites have a drifting local equator crossing time, but some of it is due to instrumental problems. Some of those problems are captured by the structured uncertainty in the bottom panel, but not all of it. The data only go back to the mid-1980s, because before that, there weren't enough overlaps to constrain the differences between subsequent pairs of satellites based on simultaneous nadir overpasses (SNOs). For satellites in the early 1980s and late 1970s, the coefficients to calibration the thermometres measuring the temperature of the on-board calibration target appear to have been lost. For the earliest satellites the header data does not match available documentation. Software to produce this figure is on Github, raw source data are available from NOAA CLASS, some processed data from FIDUCEO.

This is for a global average. To do this regionally would add additional complications.

The CLARREO programme is proposed to be the first in-orbit SI reference for accurate calibration. Had we had that for the past 40 years, our job would be easier. But CLARREO is still waiting for funding.

So the answer to your question is: with what we have now — not good enough — yet.

But if you are contemplating a career in satellite techno-archeology, I recommend it. It's great fun.

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    $\begingroup$ Nicely addressed! I figured if you were going to start this measurement with modern instruments, as the original poster seemed to imply, you'd still have to wait 30+ years to get a good enough time series. $\endgroup$ Nov 14, 2019 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @jeffronicus Oh yes, lots of scientists can't wait to start measuring with actual SI-calibrated instruments. But who will pay for this, in particular considering that it should be essentially forever? The best candidate would IMO be Copernicus Climate Change Services (C3S), maybe. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2019 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very supportive answer. I wish it would be supplemented with xls tables. Then one could take, say, a 1000 days average, and compare 1987-1990 period with 2015-18 average. Then the error bar can be roughly assumed to be ~0.2C. I somehow feel that you will see no difference over 30 years, and all your data don't support the hockey stick - no warming, no cooling, just as expected. Thanks for the honest data. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2019 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Ale..chenski The y-axis on my graph has a range of 50 K (brightness temperature) and covers 40 years, the Hockey stick graph has a y-axis range of less than 2°C and covers 1000 years. They show different things. You can calculate this yourself by downloading 40 years of HIRS data (around 2 TB), follow the FIDUCEO link in my answer for more information. Software is on github (link added to answer). $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Nov 15, 2019 at 9:04

You seem to conflate several things in your question.

First, AGH skeptics don't deny "climate change". They don't even deny that anthropogenic activity does have some impact on thermal balance of Earth. They just don't think this impact has any significance, since the same climate scientists already have established that CO2 was 10-fold higher in the Earth past, and no water-amplified "runaway" effects (aka "feedbacks") have lead to any terrible effects to life on Earth. It short, there was no "point of no return", historically speaking.

Second, you confuse "global change in average surface temperature" with "global heating". Since the Earth is round and suffers very different insolation levels (equatorial areas are hot and radiate back quite a lot, polar areas are cold and emit much less, all in proportion to 4-th degree of absolute temperature in accord with Stefan-Boltzmann law), it is easy to construct simple examples when lower "average temperature" leads to higher thermal emission, and higher average temperature leads to lower emission to outer space. In other words, there is no correlation between "average surface temperature" of the globe with global "radiative imbalance" (aka "global heating").

Therefore obtaining thermal images from distance might show ANY type of correlation with statistical averages of surface temperatures. And I don't even mention technical difficulties related to long-term stability and calibration of remote sensors, and with necessity to get these observations for at least 100 years to see any effect. And as I noted above, the effect can be anything and prove nothing.

  • $\begingroup$ "no water-amplified "runaway" effects (aka "feedbacks") have lead to any terrible effects to life on Earth." I think that the five mass extinctions would probably count as: "terrible effects to life on Earth". $\endgroup$
    – polcott
    Nov 12, 2019 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ "Second, you confuse "global change in average surface temperature" with "global heating"." In other words you are saying then when the Earth is measured to be hotter, the Earth is not really hotter at all. You could only be correct if the increase in heat measured on the surface was offset by a loss of heat somewhere else such as the Oceans. $\endgroup$
    – polcott
    Nov 12, 2019 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ @polcott, this is a very sensitive topic, so you better try to use accurate terminology.I am saying that some surface spots on Earth are getting "hotter" over, say, 100-years trend, and some spots are getting colder, all in accord with global NOAA network data. The trends are not uniform across the globe. I am stating that the same change in "average surface temperature" (aka "warming") can produce positive or negative "global radiative imbalance", depending on particular distribution of trends and affected areas.This is a simple mathematical consequence of sigma*T^4 emission law. $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2019 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ I really hate the "it was higher in earth's history" mentality. we also had jungles in the arctic, a desert larger than all the current ones combined, and dinosaurs running around. no one thinks we are going to wipe out life on earth, we are worried about screwing our civilization over to the point of collapse or regression by damaging our infrastructure and major food sources. Human civilization is delicate, life as a whole is not. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 15, 2019 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Ale..chenski because humans civilization is built around producing large amounts of cereal crops in highly fertile areas with existing infrastructure, ares which cease to be fertile as rainfall patterns and temprature change. land is not interchangeable, soils vary widely in quality. Worse we are driving our pollinators extinct which will make soil fertility moot. disruption of food production is hte single biggest cause of civilization collapse in history, and out current civilization is so interconnected such collapse will not stay isolated. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 15, 2019 at 15:12

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