For Scientists, the Race to Backup Critical Climate Data is On

Since President Trump’s inauguration, the climate change page at disappeared. Reuters also reported that climate references were to be removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, though it appears that’s been delayed. And that has many researchers worried about the status of critical climate data hosted on government websites. Groups across the country are now backing up everything from satellite imagery to pollution inventories so that information will be public and accessible in the event that it is removed or deleted. They hope the effort will ensure climate research isn’t slowed down, regardless of the politics of the Trump administration. Reporter Zahra Hirji, who’s been covering the story for InsideClimate News, caught us up on the latest on the effort. (Graphic: Modeling of Earth’s temperature changes between 2014 and 2099 / NASA)

The Allegheny Front: So describe this grassroots effort to archive environmental and climate data. Who’s involved and where is it happening?

Zahra Hirji: It’s a pretty big effort, and there are essentially two overlapping tracks. The first is to [take] as much federal climate-related data off of websites and then copy them somewhere else on the web. The larger effort is to download the more comprehensive data sets that might not be as easy to scrape or need a lot of context and then upload them to a separate server. That effort is called DataRefuge, and it’s being handled by the University of Pennsylvania — specifically the Penn program in the environmental humanities and Penn Libraries. But they’re collaborating with a bunch of different universities, as well as other scientists and the general public. They held an event a couple weekends ago in Pennsylvania where more than 250 people helped with this archiving and cataloging project. And since then, there’s been one in Chicago, Indianapolis and L.A. There’s one coming up in Ann Arbor and New York, and many more will soon be on the books.

LISTEN: Inside the Rush to Save Climate Data

AF: So now that the Trump administration has taken over, where does the effort stand? Is it complete? Is it a race against time?

ZH: My understanding is that this is going to be a very long process, and the events are continuing — even though Donald Trump has now entered the White House. But I think they probably feel the pressure to work fast. The whole reason they’ve gone about doing this is there’s concern that the Trump administration will either delete data or at least not make it publicly accessible. There’s just so much data out there that it’s not going to be a quick process. One of the people in charge told me that this won’t all be solved in a single hackathon. Some scientists are literally volunteering weeks of their time to download certain data sets that they work with.

AF: So what kind of information are they backing up?

ZH: The federal government researches and collects and handles so much climate data. Think about NOAA or NASA or the EPA — we’re not just tracking CO2 levels in the atmosphere. They’re looking at everything. And there’s kind of too much [data], so they’re going through this survey process to identify which data sets are most vulnerable. They’re defining most vulnerable as not having a lot of backups, not being able to find it in a lot of different places. At the DataRefuge Philly event, they were downloading data off a couple hundred pages within NOAA. But they told me that this data can be found across departments, even some surprising ones. Even the Department of Commerce has some climate data.

AF: So once this data is archived, who will have access?

ZH: The goal is for the general public to have access. And they’re being very strict about how one goes about downloading, saving and uploading the data, because they really want it to be in an accessible, comprehensive way so that even researchers with the highest standards would be able to cite it for their work.

AF: Is there a precedent for this?

ZH: Not really. I know that some people in the past have tracked websites being lost when a new administration takes over. But this kind of large-scale effort, I’ve certainly never heard of it before.

AF: In your reporting on this, you reference a former Canadian prime minister, who was a climate change skeptic, and what happened to climate information under his administration.

ZH: Right. When Stephen Harper was Prime Minister of Canada, he was known among science circles as being pretty anti-science. Under his leadership, the federal government in Canada really shut down how much interaction their scientists could have with the general public and the press on issues like climate change.

AF: And we’re already seeing similar things with Trump. I imagine that has deepened the sense of urgency among this network of data savers.

ZH: Yeah, at least when I spoke with the folks working on this a couple weeks ago, I think they were very heartened by how many people in their local communities — as well as nationally — wanted to be part of this effort. Other universities were reaching out to them, asking what steps they could take. And I expect this is something that will only gain more traction as you hear the Trump administration taking steps like this.


Zahra Hirji is a reporter for InsideClimate News. You can read her full report on the DataRefuge project here.