Saturday, 24 December 2016

Can Trump fiddle with climate observations?

Some people worry about the Trump administration fiddling with climate data to get politically correct trends. There is a lot to worry about. This is not one of them.

Raw data

A 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 fiddling

Apart 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 data

Thus 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.

Dumpster in Quebec with hundreds of carelessly discarded historic books and documents.
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 reading

The 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


Freeman, E., Woodruff, S. D., Worley, S. J., Lubker, S. J., Kent, E. C., Angel, W. E., Berry, D. I., Brohan, P., Eastman, R., Gates, L., Gloeden, W., Ji, Z., Lawrimore, J., Rayner, N. A., Rosenhagen, G. and Smith, S. R., 2016: ICOADS Release 3.0: a major update to the historical marine climate record. Int. J. Climatol., doi: 10.1002/joc.4775


  1. Re fiddling with data, the obvious comparison, which I'm surprised you don't mention (except rather indirectly via NS), is with the conspiracy theories of the denialists, who insist that the records have been fiddled with. Any Trump supporter would face the same obstacles that we've already explained about to the denialists. The only slight problem with that line of argument is that you discover that you're having to say the same things to the "nice" people as you had to say to the nutjobs, which makes you wonder if they're so different, really.

    Re destruction of data, you write "The conservative Harper government in Canada committed libricide and destroyed seven environmental libraries and threw the books on the trash heap." But AFAIK no data was destroyed; do you think otherwise?

    I also think the chances of any datasets being destroyed are negligible (I appreciate you're saying "With some vigilance the data we have will be okay" but I think even that overstates the problem). Anything of any importance is massively multiply over backup up already. The way people nowadays do backups, even the "primary" copy would be very hard to destroy with any degree of certainty (thus, I don't think I believe your "If a Trump stooge would order the deletion of a dataset also the backups would be deleted"). And destroying the many many secondary copies would be impossible (indeed, a more plausible strategy, were you inclined to try it, would be to try to pollute the record with subtly varying copies, but that would require actual malice and be traceable, so I don't think it is plausible).

    Also, you do at least half buy into the idea that the Trump admin might think of trying this; I don't.

  2. It was just a few persons, but I thought it kinda sad that by fearing fiddling with climate data these people had more or less bought in the utter nonsense of the mitigation sceptical movement that climate data can be fiddled with on a whim. Nice people are not always perfect.

    I have heard conflicting reports on data loses in Canada. If any reader knows more please let us know. I guess, it is difficult to ascertain whether (grey) literature in those libraries was unique of whether there is still a copy of the same report or book somewhere else. Destroying a collection is also destruction.

    Some datasets are large and not easy to keep many copies of. The temperature dataset is likely one of the last they will go after, first on the list are the less known datasets, which in bulk together are important. I wish I had your economists' trust in the rationality of all actors, but I do not see that as rational in the face of the evidence.

    I have no idea how large the chances are, predictions pertaining the future are hard, especially outside of science. The damage would be sufficiently large to also take strong action even if you think the chance is near zero.

  3. Harper's destruction of the libraries destroyed a bunch of musty reports that nobody ever reads... until somebody tries to read them.

    Another of his signature pieces was pulling out of funding the ELA (experimental lakes area). It had a budget of about $1.5M per year, which clearly was the main reason for the budget deficit, so he cut it. Totally unrelated to the decision to cut it was that it published research about acid rain and climate change. And I'm sure it was also a total coincidence that it was a long-term facility whose value was largely in seeing changes over a timespan of decades, so that just pulling the plug for a year was quite disruptive.

    I figure we'll see a lot of decisions like that in the US over the next 4-8 years.

    In the case of the ELA, private funding kept it going until a change in government.

  4. "Musty reports" can still be important. When I want to know which measurements methods were used in 1895 in Bavaria I need to read a document nearly no one reads. All those "musty reports" together are an important loss for humanity.

    Fighting election fraud will be very important to make sure this dark age ends after 4 years. Many GOP politicians do not believe in democracy, just in power.

  5. Victor: to be clear, we're in agreement. Just because nobody right now it reading a historical record doesn't mean it has no value: it establishes the baseline. Harper clearly knew that: he's read 1984.

  6. Oh my. After watching Trump lying calmly in the face of fact checkers; appointing people that are deniers of facts and reality, you still believe that Trump will be somehow bound to reason and honour and the reality and the scientific method. He wont. He was elected to smash the system, and he could do it.

    Stop believing and start looking at the dire possibilities.

    So: what is e.g. the NASA GISS beside the data products that are freely available and probably quite secure? Some rooms, Know How.
    Just fire the people. Remember Trumps most famous sentence in reality TV? It will will become the most destructive sentence to anything he doesn't like: "You are fired."
    Scatter the know how. Divert the funding, close the locations, dump the libraries, declare any email from scientists within NASA property of the state, and blame the very victims of this vandalism as frauds.

    Who could stop him? The chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology? The chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works? The Head of EPA? The Senate? The House?

    OK; then SUE! Ahahaha, having denied a President of the United States his right to name a judge for the first time in history, they now just have to wait until its up to the supreme court.

    Prepare for the worst. Prepare for a destruction that will pale the vandals.

  7. Yes, prepare for the worst. That was my first post after the election. In the worst case scenario your imagination is likely not enough to imagine what Trump will do to America.

    That being said, science cannot be derailed by one rogue nation. If that were possible we would not have seen any scientific progress. If Trump stops GISTEMP it would be easy to continue that dataset outside of the USA. For other datasets that is harder, but GISTEMP runs on just a few hours per month.

  8. As much as I wanted to share William Connolley's optimism, two remarks to his comment:

    CMIP5 alone has a volume of several PB. I am quite sure that there is no "massive multiply". Ah model data, just re-run the models. In theory, yes (partly). In practice: Forget it.

    I don't think active destruction of data is such a big threat. But I think the chances of simply making data unavailable for research is a likely collateral damage of funding cuts to the relevant institutions. A lot of US agencies maintain the infrastructure to actually make that data findable and accessible and donate the bandwidth to get it. And they do this so well that a lot of research, worldwide, critically depends on the nice websites, ftp servers, federated storage systems and databases kindly provided by NOAA, EPA, NCBI, NASA, LLNL, ...

    I don't doubt that there will be always a tape with the data you want in some basement somewhere, except that doesn't really help you.

  9. That science itself will in the long run not be derailed is as meaningless today as that the earth, as a ball hurtling around the sun, will survive global warming as well as humanity.

    The damage is waay simpler to do. Where there is no data there is no saving or reconstruction. How about closing all weather stations that get not the best grades in the great work done by the reknowned experts at surface stations? You know, this flawed stations giving the fudged increasing temperature readings. Just close them!

    You like the sea ice data? How long does it to take to replace the satellites? Just a minor change either in terms of use or just no replacement.... and this lying sea ice data, that keeps showing decrease when every climate-realist believing in god and Trump knows that the ice is stable, is toast. Hoorraay!

    Prepare for more evil than the worst.


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