Raw dataA Trump stooge could not fiddle with the raw data because there are many organisations that also have a copy. Old data can be found in the annual reports of the weather services. New data in their databases and in many archives that collect the observations that weather services share with each other, the so-called CLIMAT messages every month (for climate purposes) and GTS messages every day (for meteorology).
Nick Stokes checked how station data moves from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) to NOAA's Global Historical Climate Network (GHCN). Spoiler: it fits. The marine observations by voluntary observing vessels are less open to the public due to piracy concerns, but this is just a small part of the marine data nowadays and regional data managers can check whether everything fits (Freeman et al., 2016).
Because climate data needs to be consistent, a lot of data would need to be changed. If only a few stations were changed these would be different from their neighbours and as such identified as faulty. Thus to find any fiddling of the raw data only a small number of stations needs to be sampled.
Who fiddles the fiddlers?The raw data is processed to estimate the global (and regional) climatic changes from it. The temperature change in the raw data and the actual estimate of the temperature increase is shown in the graph below. The actual temperature increase was smaller than the one of the raw data. The main reason is that old sea surface temperature measurements were made with buckets and the water in the bucket would cool a little due to evaporation before reading the thermometer.
Theoretically a Trump stooge could mess with this data processing. However, the software is open. Thus everyone can check whether the code produces the claimed results when applied to the raw data. The changes would thus have to be made in the open and justified.
The Trump stooge could naturally openly make changes to the code and claim that this "improves" the data processing. Whether the new software is actually an improvement is, however, something we can check. For the land station data we have a validation dataset where we know the climate signal we put in and the measurement artefacts we put in and can thus see how well the software removes the artefacts. The current homogenization software of NOAA removes these measurement artefacts well. If the software is fiddled with for political reasons, it will perform worse.
If that happens I am sure someone will be willing to apply the better original code to the raw data and publish these results. That only requires modest software skills.
Signs of clear fiddlingApart from such audits larger changes would also be obvious because data needs to be consistent with each other. Land surface temperature, sea surface temperature and upper air temperature, for example, need to fit together. Marine temperatures from ships, drifting buoys, moored coastal buoys and [[ARGO]] need to fit together. Pressure will need to fit to wind, the circulation to precipitation, precipitation to snow cover, snow cover to reflectance, reflectance to incoming radiation and absorption. The changes in the physical climate would need to fit to the changes observed by biologists and bird spotters in nature, to changes noticed by agricultural scientists, economists and farmers in yields, to changes seen by glaciologists in glaciers and ice caps, to changes measured by hydrologists in stream flows.
It is easier to go to the moon than to fake the moon landing in Hollywood. It is easier to fake the moon landing than to make significant changes to climate data without being caught.
Destruction of dataThus with some vigilance the data we have will be okay. What is worrying is the possible destruction of datasets and the discontinuing of measurements. Trump's election has shown that catastrophes with less than 50% chance do happen. Climate data is part of our cultural and scientific heritage and important to protect communities. Thus we should not take any risks with them.
Destroying data would put American communities in more danger, but the Trump administration may not care. For instance, Florida’s Republican government banned state employees from discussing global warming. That hinders adaptation to climate change. Republican North Carolina legislators voted to ignore sea-level rise projections, putting citizens at a higher risk of drowning, endangering infrastructure and leading to higher adaptation costs later on. Several Republican politicians have wasted taxpayer money to harass climate scientists in return for campaign contributions.
The conservative Harper government in Canada committed libricide and destroyed seven environmental libraries and threw the books on the trash heap.
Also what has not happened before can happen. The radicalised Congress has shown disregard of the American public by shutting down the government. In the election campaign Trump called for violence to quell protest and to lock up his opponent. An alt-nazi will be advisor in the White House. Never before have so many banks and oil companies had a seat at the tables of power. This is the first time that a foreign power was forced to move a celebration to the hotel of the president-elect. Presidents normally do not have hotels in Washington DC that all diplomats will use to gain favours. Trump will be the first president with a 300 million dollar loan from a foreign bank he is supposed to regulate. This list could be longer than this post. Do not be fooled that this is normal.
If a Trump stooge would order the deletion of a dataset also the backups would be deleted. Thus it is good that independent initiatives have sprung up to preserve digital archives. I hope and trust that all American scientists will make sure that there are copies of their data and code on private disks and in foreign countries.
Unfortunately not all data is digitised or digitisable, many documents still need to be scanned, proxy sources such as (ice) cores and tree rings contain information that has not been measured yet or needs future technologies to measure. Some of these ice cores come from glaciers that no longer exist.
Observations could be stopped. Even if they would be continued again after four years, the gap would limit our ability to see changes and thus to adapt to climate change and limit the damages. Looking at the proposed members of the Trump cabinet, I fear that such damages and costs for American citizens will not stop them. I hope that the blue states and Europe will be willing to pick up the tab until decency is restored and is prepared to move fast when needed. At a scientific conference in San Francisco Jerry Brown, Governor of California, promised earlier this month that "if Trump turns off the earth monitoring satellites California will launch its own damn satellites." A hopeful sign in the face of Washington fundamentalism.
Related readingThe Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists has established a hotline for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees to report political meddling
How Trump’s White House Could Mess With Government Data. 538 on how the Trump administration could fiddle with other (economic) datasets and especially affect how the information is communicated
A chat with Gavin Schmidt of NASA-GISS on why climate data is mostly save and the legal protections for federal scientists communicating science
Just the facts, homogenization adjustments reduce global warming
Statistical homogenisation for dummies
Benchmarking homogenisation algorithms for monthly data
Brady Dennis for The Washington Post: Scientists are frantically copying U.S. climate data, fearing it might vanish under Trump
Canadian CBC radio on Harper's carbon government attack on science: Science Under Siege
On the cuts to Canadian science and observational capabilities under Harper. Academic Matters: Harper’s attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy
On Harper's destruction of libraries: The Harper Government Has Trashed and Destroyed Environmental Books and Documents
In Florida, officials ban term 'climate change'
New Law in North Carolina Bans Latest Scientific Predictions of Sea-Level Rise