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Hacked e-mails fuel climate change debate

By Kim Zetter
A hacker has ignited an online debate on climate change.
A hacker has ignited an online debate on climate change.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hacker steals e-mails from climate researchers, posts them online
  • The documents ignite an online debate about climate science
  • Some bloggers claim the scientists colluded on their findings about the climate
  • Others say the correspondence shows their research is thorough

(WIRED) -- An online debate over global warming science has broken out after an unknown hacker broke into the e-mail server at a prominent climate-research center, stole more than a thousand e-mails about global warming and posted them online.

Global warming skeptics are seizing on portions of the messages as evidence that scientists are colluding and warping data to fit the theory of global warming, but researchers say the e-mails are being taken out of context and just show scientists engaged in frank discussion.

The Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, is one of the United Kingdom's leading climate research centers and has been a strong proponent of the position that global warming is real and has human causes. The center confirmed the hack occurred in an e-mail statement to Wired.

"We are aware that information from a server in one area of the university has been made available on public Web sites," the statement read. "We are extremely concerned that personal information about individuals may have been compromised. Because of the volume of this information we cannot currently confirm what proportion of this material is genuine."

The stolen cache includes more than 1,000 e-mails and more than 3,000 documents, some containing code. They were posted anonymously to an FTP server in Russia. The hacker then posted a link to the 61-MB file on the blog Air Vent.

The hacker's message that accompanied the link read: "We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps. We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code and documents."

Video: Climate e-mails hacked
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The e-mails, which cover a decade of correspondence, are getting a lot of attention among bloggers who point to statements in them that they say suggest the scientists colluded and manipulated data to support their global warming viewpoints. The bloggers highlight a statement in one 1999 e-mail from Phil Jones, director of the research center:

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

The comment refers to Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. Mann told Wired the "Nature trick" refers to a solution for displaying data that he and others used in a paper they published to get around a problem in the way that temperature data is traditionally displayed.

The solution allows for better viewing and understanding of the data, Mann said, and pointed to a post on the RealClimate blog that his colleagues have made to explain the reference. That post also indicates that the hacker first tried to post the trove of stolen data to the RealClimate blog on Tuesday.

Another e-mail from Jones dated last year with the subject line "IPCC and FOI" is a request to Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Pennsylvania, asking him to delete certain e-mails. Bloggers allege that Jones was trying to destroy data that had been requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Jones wasn't available for comment. Mann told Threat Level that he never deleted any e-mails and doesn't know the context under which Jones made the request.

Bloggers allege that an e-mail from Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, suggests that reality contradicts scientific claims about global warming:

"Well I have my own article on where the heck is global warming? We are asking that here in Boulder where we have broken records the past two days for the coldest days on record. We had 4 inches of snow. The high the last 2 days was below 30F and the normal is 69F, and it smashed the previous records for these days by 10F. The low was about 18F and also a record low, well below the previous record low....

"The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can't. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate."

But Trenberth, who acknowledged the e-mail is genuine, says bloggers are missing the point he's making in it by not reading the article cited in his e-mail. That article, called "An Imperative for Climate Change Planning," actually says that global warming is continuing, despite random temperature variations that would seem to suggest otherwise.

"It says we don't have an observing system adequate to track it, but there are all other kinds of signs aside from global mean temperatures -- including melting of Arctic sea ice and rising sea levels and a lot of other indicators -- that global warming is continuing," he says.

Gavin Schmidt, a research scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says the e-mails offer no damning indictment of climate researchers, and that bloggers are reading information in them out of context.

"There's nothing in the e-mails that shows that global warming is a hoax," he told Threat Level. "There's no funding by nefarious groups. There's no politics in any of these things; nobody from the [United Nations] telling people what to do. There's nothing hidden, no manipulation.

"It's just scientists talking about science, and they're talking relatively openly as people in private e-mails generally are freer with their thoughts than they would be in a public forum. The few quotes that are being pulled out [are out] of context. People are using language used in science and interpreting it in a completely different way."

Trenberth agrees.

"If you read all of these e-mails, you will be surprised at the integrity of these scientists," he says. "The unfortunate thing about this is that people can cherry pick and take things out of context."

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