Cliff Mass: Did Sea-Tac’s third runway change our climate?

Last week the Seattle Times had a front page story about the Northwest becoming warmer and wetter  based on recently updated climate statistics at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.  But can we use one observing site to reliably determine region climate trends?  In my previous blog I noted that this is a real problem:  one site is not necessarily representative of a region and besides it might have observing issues.  And Sea Tac has such issues in spades:  changes in the local environment, changes in sensors, and changing positions of the sensors.

But there is a related issue: although I believe that the threat of anthropogenic global warming forced mainly by CO2 and other greenhouse gases is extraordinarily serious and –quite frankly– inevitable, I also worry about the integrity of our surface observations.  I don’t believe my field has given sufficient attention to the impact of development around our weather stations, or of poor placement of our thermometers near concrete, buildings, or other generators of heat.

Between 2004 and 2008 there was a huge change at the airport, one of the largest construction/earth moving projects in the region in years–the building of a third runway.  In this blog I will ask the question: did the construction of the third runway have an impact on summer temperatures reported from the airport?   My conclusion and that of my colleague Mark Albright is: 

it sure looks like it.


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