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CLIMATE researchers should spend less time in front of computer screens building predictive models and more time in the field observing and interpreting “hard or real data”, an internationally recognised coastal science expert and publisher has warned.

Charles Finkl, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Coastal Research, which published a peer-reviewed study by NSW researcher Phil Watson that rekindled a fierce debate about sea level rises, said modelling was necessary but should be taken with a grain of salt.

He accused the CSIRO of refusing to consider questions raised by Mr Watson’s research for its modelling, predicting a worst-case scenario sea level rise of up to 1.1m by 2100.

“The CSIRO more or less agrees with Watson but does not want to admit they have have not got it quite right previously,” said Professor Finkl, geosciences professor emeritus at Florida Atlantic University.

“I am not in favour of models for many reasons. They get better over time, and we need to use them, but with a grain of salt. We should instead use our brains and hard or real data to make interpretations. Many researchers do not even go into the field any more because they think the world exists on their computers. Big mistake.”

The CSIRO agrees with Mr Watson’s findings showing a deceleration of sea-level rises in Australasian coastal waters in the second half of the 20th century but argues they have no bearing on IPCC projections of global sea rise this century.

This is despite the IPCC projections – and subsequent CSIRO projections – assuming a dramatic acceleration in sea-level rises this century because of the impact of global warming.

CSIRO sea level expert Kathleen McInnes, asked by the ABC’s Media Watch program to respond to a front page story about Mr Watson’s research published last month by The Australian, said the IPCC projections were “based on computer models of the earth system, and not on a simple extrapolation of observed regional trends”.

“The study by Phil Watson does not call into question the projections of the IPCC nor CSIRO,” Dr McInnes said.

Mr Watson, the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change’s coastal unit team leader, analysed data taken over 100 years by tidal gauges at Fremantle, Auckland, Fort Denison in Sydney and Newcastle, and found a weak deceleration of sea-level rises between 1940 and 2000.

He made no prediction on what future rises would be, telling The Australian sea levels had risen more quickly since 1990 than the 20th-century average. “What remains unknown is whether or not these rates are going to persist into the future and indeed increase.”

US researcher James Houston, whose work with Bob Dean on sea-level rises has been published by the Journal of Coastal Research, told The Australian Mr Watson’s findings were consistent with his own and nearly all studies of 20th-century sea-level rises. “It is ironic that the sceptics and believers do not understand that the different papers on sea-level acceleration or deceleration are basically saying the same thing,” Dr Houston said.

Professor Finkl does not believe global warming and sea-level rises are caused by human activity but publishes the peer-reviewed work of researchers who do. He said the debate – and implications for coastal planning laws – was not whether sea levels were rising, but how quickly. “The real problem with the models is they show an exponential rise in the rate of sea-level rise, the so-called hockey stick approach,” he said.

The Australian, 8 August 2011