The authors of a startling new study on ocean warming have filed a correction with the journal that originally published it and acknowledged “inadvertent errors that made their conclusions seem more certain than they actually are,” the Washington Post reports.
“Unfortunately, we made mistakes here,” said co-author Ralph Keeling, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “I think the main lesson is that you work as fast as you can to fix mistakes when you find them.”
The study, published October 31, concluded that the world’s oceans had absorbed 60% more heat per year over the last quarter-century than previously research had shown, indicating that global warming is farther advanced than scientists believed. “The central conclusion of the study—that oceans are retaining ever more energy as more heat is being trapped within Earth’s climate system each year—is in line with other studies that have drawn similar conclusions,” the Post explains. “And it hasn’t changed much despite the errors. But Keeling said the authors’ miscalculations mean there is a much larger margin of error in the findings, which means researchers can weigh in with less certainty than they thought.”
“I accept responsibility for what happened because it’s my role to make sure that those kind of details got conveyed,” he said. “These problems do not invalidate the methodology or the new insights into ocean biogeochemistry on which it is based, but they do influence the mean rate of warming we infer, and more importantly, the uncertainties of that calculation,” he added in a more detailed explanation.
“Maintaining the accuracy of the scientific record is of primary importance to us as publishers, and we recognize our responsibility to correct errors in papers that we have published,” Nature told the Post in a statement. “Issues relating to this paper have been brought to Nature’s attention and we are looking into them carefully. We take all concerns related to papers we have published very seriously and will issue an update once further information is available.”
Questions about the study emerged when UK-based independent researcher Nicholas Lewis published a detailed blog post on the topic. “So far as I can see, their method vastly underestimates the uncertainty,” he later told the Post, “as well as biasing up significantly, nearly 30%, the central estimate.”
While it wasn’t clear whether Keeling and co-author Laure Resplandy of Princeton University agree with the full critique from Lewis, who tends to argue that global warming will be less severe than computer simulations indicate, they’re earning kudos for their quick, transparent response to the error.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory research scientist Paul Durack said promptly acknowledging errors “is the right approach in the interests of transparency.” He added that “this study, although there are additional questions that are arising now, confirms the long-known result that the oceans have been warming over the observed record, and the rate of warming has been increasing.”
“The key is not whether mistakes are made, but how they are dealt with—and the response from Laure and Ralph here is exemplary,” agreed Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “No panic, but a careful reexamination of their work—despite a somewhat hostile environment.”