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Fearing Trump, Penn scholars move to preserve climate-change data

In September, supporters wait for Donald Trump, Jr. to speak in the parking lot during the grand-opening of a Trump campaign headquarters near Canonsburg,
In September, supporters wait for Donald Trump, Jr. to speak in the parking lot during the grand-opening of a Trump campaign headquarters near Canonsburg,Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A lonely buoy on Hog Reef, in the ocean north of Bermuda, has been steadily measuring levels of carbon dioxide, salinity, and other climate indicators for much of the last decade -- one of dozens of such stations scattered around the globe.

Concerned that the incoming Trump administration may be dismissive of climate science, a group of University of Pennsylvania scholars has joined an effort to protect these measurements and many others housed on U.S. government websites.

The group has started compiling lists of climate data sets and has been talking with tech companies and other universities about backing them up on nongovernment servers, said Bethany Wiggin, director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.

The Trump transition team has not expressed any intent to hide data, much less to get rid of it, which would be illegal. The transition team declined to comment.

But Wiggin said it was smart to be prepared.

"We're not saying it's going to happen, but we're saying commonsense precaution would say, `Better safe than sorry,' " said Wiggin, also a professor of Germanic languages and literature.

Trump and several of his cabinet picks have expressed skepticism that human activity plays a significant role in climate change, despite overwhelming agreement among researchers that it does. Average global temperatures have risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a shift scientists attribute primarily to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. Effects include rising sea levels.

Collaborators in the data-preservation effort include the University of Toronto and Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes for the Washington Post. Wiggin and her colleagues are holding a "data rescue" strategizing event at Penn on Jan. 13 and 14, working with the university's library system, she said.

Asked for examples of when access to environmental data was threatened in the past, she said it had been removed from certain federal websites under the administration of President George W. Bush.

"It's not like data gets deleted. It just becomes so difficult to access it that you really have to use FOIA to get it," Wiggin said, referring to the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2006, for example, the State Department quietly "retired" a collection of links to climate research, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The data that Penn and Toronto seek to protect include measurements of temperature, sea level, greenhouse-gas emissions, and airborne toxic chemicals. They are typically enormous and would outstrip the capacity of most computer servers. Asked about the private partners who might help archive them, Wiggin said she was not yet allowed to say.