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Why One Climate Scientist Is Backing Up Data and Planning to March

Those backing up government climate data estimate they need five petabytes - five million gigabytes - of storage.
Peter Brantley/flickr

Universities, research centers, and science-related professional organizations have been vocal in opposition to the travel and immigration restrictions imposed by President Trump last weekend. They’ve also expressed concern about early White House directives that barred public communication by employees of the USDA and EPA. Others within the science community didn’t wait for President Trump to take office before acting.

Back in December, the Union of Concerned Scientists announced it would set up a hotline for government researchers to report “political meddling.” And several groups across the U.S. and Canada started working to back up government-held climate data.

Meteorologist and Slate contributor, Eric Holthaus, began calling on scientists to identify potentially vulnerable government databases. He says he doesn't expect the Trump administration to deliberately destroy databases. Rather, lack of access may become an issue. 

"I think the most likely scenario is that there will be de-funding of organizations," said Holthaus, "like programs at the USDA, EPA, NOAA, and NASA, that focus on climate science, and focus on the types of information gathering and scientific communication exercises that may go contrary to the administration's beliefs."

Over the past few months, scientists, computer experts, and volunteers have gathered at events across the U.S. and in Canada to copy government-held data onto non-government drives and servers. Many will be made available on university servers.

"We're trying to capture the datasets in a way where they can continue to be used in peer-reviewed literature," said Holthaus. "They can continue to be cited as data that we can trace straight back to government servers and we know they have not been tampered with since they left the government servers."

Holthaus says he can't precisely pin down the amount of data that's been backed up so far, but an initial survey suggested they would need somewhere close to five petabytes - five million gigabytes - of storage capacity to handle all the databases.

"This is raw information that's been collected that may not even have been looked at by scientists yet," said Holthaus. "We're trying to preserve it in it's original state so that it can be used whatever way that scientists feel like they need to use it going forward."

Holthaus has been vocal about the threat he thinks the Trump administration poses to the scientific endeavor. When the AP reported that President Trump had directed EPA employees not to use social media or speak with reporters, Holthaus tweeted "The censorship of science has begun." Holthaus says he sees more than the usual transition slowdown at work.

"I think putting in context with public statements by Donald Trump and by other members of his cabinet, I think it's reasonable to view this in sort of a hostile way," said Holthaus. "I'm operating under the assumption that suppression of public science and scientists is in the Trump administration's best interest. And, to me, that is counter to what we stand for as Americans."

That's why Holthaus plans to join the March for Science being organized for April 22nd, 2017. He says it's time for scientists and non-scientists, alike, to stand up and tell political leaders that the truth matters.

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