Coverage bias in the HadCRUT4 temperature series and its impact on recent temperature trends



Incomplete global coverage is a potential source of bias in global temperature reconstructions if the unsampled regions are not uniformly distributed over the planet's surface. The widely used Hadley Centre–Climatic Reseach Unit Version 4 (HadCRUT4) dataset covers on average about 84% of the globe over recent decades, with the unsampled regions being concentrated at the poles and over Africa. Three existing reconstructions with near-global coverage are examined, each suggesting that HadCRUT4 is subject to bias due to its treatment of unobserved regions.

Two alternative approaches for reconstructing global temperatures are explored, one based on an optimal interpolation algorithm and the other a hybrid method incorporating additional information from the satellite temperature record. The methods are validated on the basis of their skill at reconstructing omitted sets of observations. Both methods provide results superior to excluding the unsampled regions, with the hybrid method showing particular skill around the regions where no observations are available.

Temperature trends are compared for the hybrid global temperature reconstruction and the raw HadCRUT4 data. The widely quoted trend since 1997 in the hybrid global reconstruction is two and a half times greater than the corresponding trend in the coverage-biased HadCRUT4 data. Coverage bias causes a cool bias in recent temperatures relative to the late 1990s, which increases from around 1998 to the present. Trends starting in 1997 or 1998 are particularly biased with respect to the global trend. The issue is exacerbated by the strong El Niño event of 1997–1998, which also tends to suppress trends starting during those years.