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Climate Data Preservation Efforts Mount as Trump Takes Office

Universities host hackathons to save environmental information amid fears the Trump administration will scrub data that undercuts its views.
January 20, 2017
NASA researchers believe the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be in a state of irreversible decline, contributing to rising sea levels.

Dozens of computer science students at the University of California, Los Angeles, will mark Inauguration Day by downloading federal climate databases they fear could vanish under the Trump administration.

Friday's hackathon follows a series of grassroots data preservation efforts in recent weeks, amid increasing concerns the new administration is filling agencies with climate deniers likely eager to cut off access to scientific data that undermine their policy views. Those worries only grew earlier this week, when Inside EPA reported that the Environmental Protection Agency transition team plans to scrub climate data from the agency's website, citing a source familiar with the team.

Earlier federal data hackathons include the "Guerrilla Archiving" event at the University of Toronto last month, the Internet Archive's Gov Data Hackathon in San Francisco at the beginning of January, and the DataRescue Philly event at the University of Pennsylvania last week.

Much of the collected data is being stored in the servers of the End of Term Web Archive, a collaborative effort to preserve government websites at the conclusion of presidential terms. The University of Pennsylvania's Penn Program in Environmental Humanities launched the separate DataRefuge project, in part to back up environmental data sets that standard Web crawling tools can't collect.

Many of the groups are working off a master list of crucial data sets from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies. Meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus helped prompt the creation of that crowdsourced list with a tweet early last month.

Other key developments driving the archival initiatives included reports that the transition team had asked Energy Department officials for a list of staff who attended climate change meetings in recent years, and public statements from senior campaign policy advisors arguing that NASA should get out of the business of “politically correct environmental monitoring."

"The transition team has given us no reason to believe that they will respect scientific data, particularly when it's inconvenient," says Gretchen Goldman, research director in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. These historical databases are crucial to ongoing climate change research in the United States and abroad, she says.

To be clear, the Trump camp hasn't publicly declared plans to erase or eliminate access to the databases. But there is certainly precedent for state and federal governments editing, removing, or downplaying scientific information that doesn't conform to their political views.

Late last year, it emerged that text on Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources website was substantially rewritten to remove references to climate change. In addition, an extensive Congressional investigation concluded in a 2007 report that the Bush Administration "engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming."

In fact, there are wide-ranging changes to federal websites with every change in administration for a variety of reasons. The Internet Archive, which collaborated on the End of Term project in 2008 and 2012 as well, notes that more than 80 percent of PDFs on .gov sites disappeared during that four-year period.

The organization has seen a surge of interest in backing up sites and data this year across all government agencies, but particularly for climate information. In the end, they expect to collect well more than 100 terabytes of data, close to triple the amount in previous years, says Jefferson Bailey, director of Web archiving.

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