NOAA/NCDC throws a roadblock my way

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As many readers know, the www.surfacestations.org effort has been gaining a lot of attention, and also volunteers. I’m now at over 130 volunteers nationwide.

The results of the effort attracted national attention. I never went seeking it, but when Bill Stiegerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune stumbled across it, he wrote a column about it. Little did I know his column was nationally syndicated. Last week I found myself being asked to give radio interviews. One interview, at KIRO in Seattle surprised me when I found myself being co-interviewed with Dr. Thomas Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) the keeper of weather records, including weather station records. The exchange was congenial and stuck to science. That was Thursday June 21st. I am certain NCDC is aware of the effort that is going on to document the stations. Part of the reason the effort exists is that NCDC has been pressed to do this by scientists that want to do exactly what I’m doing, studying the measurement environment, and NCDC has failed to do it. We’ll come back to that.

Part of the method I and volunteers are using to do this project relies on a database of weather station information provided by NCDC. In some cases stations are at airports, fire stations, sewage treatment plants, and ranger stations. In other few cases, they are at the residences of observers that have volunteered to record weather data and submit it to NCDC. Since the latitude and longitude provided in the database is fairly coarse, volunteers have to rely on a database entry called “Managing Parties” to find the name of the location, be it a fire station of the name of the volunteer observer.

You can access the database yourself, its a public record: http://mi3.ncdc.noaa.gov/mi3qry/login.cfm

Use the “Guest Login” button

I last used the NCDC database system this way to locate stations on Sunday evening, June 24th it went down Monday Morning June 25th and displayed a message:

“You are not authorized to view this information. Your IP address has been logged”

When it came back up Monday afternoon, the “managing parties” field identifying the location of the weather station was gone. I would note that I shared a radio interview with Dr. Thomas Peterson of NCDC last week, so I am certain NCDC is aware of the effort.

No notification was given, nor even a professional courtesy to advise of the change, nor any notice on the website. The records were simply removed from public view where they existed before. Given the timing, and because the this same data had been visible on the same system for years It seemed this was a response to the efforts to photograph and document the USHCN network.

Without this information, its is very difficult to locate the stations, and in some cases where the official climate station is in some one’s backyard, completely impossible. For example, fellow blogger and surfacestations.org contributor Russ Steele had a very difficult time locating the official station for Ft. Bragg, CA. The observer did consent to having photos posted by the way. Had Russ not been able to contact the observer, the station would likely never have been found as it’s surrounded by trees and garden.

One of my volunteers wrote a query to NCDC and got this back:

Your inquiry was forwarded to me by our webmaster. I’m glad you’ve found

MMS to be a useful tool in your research.

MMS is our primary source of station metadata for National Weather Service

Cooperative Observer and several other networks, and we are

actively working to provide increased detail for a larger number of stations.

It sounds as though you’ve used the system enough that once you’ve located

a station using the search, you’re clicking on the station name hyperlink

and opening a separate station details window. The managing party for a

station has always been visible by clicking on the “Other Parties” tab. In

the case of NWS Coop stations (the USHCN research network relies upon a

subset of stations in the NWS Coop program), this is usually the NWS office

that administers the site. This information was previously included at the

bottom of the Identity tab’s “form view,” but was removed from that view

early this week because in some cases it also revealed the name of the

Cooperative observer.

Cooperative observers are volunteers who donate their time in the interests

of the public good with a reasonable expectation that their personal

information will remain private. It is the NCDC’s policy to protect

observer details, based upon Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Update, Vol.

X, No. 2, 1989, which exempts the application of FOIA in certain cases and

establishes privacy protection decisions in accordance with the Privacy Act

of 1974 (2004 edition). This exemption applies when the personal privacy

interest is greater than any qualifying public interest for disclosure.

If you have other questions regarding MMS, please feel free to contact me.

I am often away from my desk, so my response may not be immediate.

I was shocked to say the least. So were others in the scientific community.

Data which was once public for years, has now been removed, and the timing is very suspect.

The claim that it was done to protect the privacy of observers doesn’t stand up to certain tests:

1) COOP weather observers are gathering climate data which is published and publicly available. The program is publicly funded. Data and methods from a publicly funded program that is not classified for national security reasons should be available for public inspection. Clearly results from surefacestations.org so far show some problems with the climate measuring network.

2) That published data is used in a multitude of publicly funded research. Some of that research guides policy decisions. The effects of a public policy decision based on data gathered by a volunteer individuals can affect millions of people. The right of the individual to FOI privacy is trumped by the greater need of the general public’s right to know if the data produced by that observer is accurate.

3) The data has been publicly available for years, removing it now is clearly in response to the effort to examine a public program given the timing of it having been removed four days after an NCDC official became aware of my efforts.

4) The data that has been removed also includes locations of public entities such as fire stations, police stations, sewage treatment plants, park headquarters, state run agricultural experiment farms, and many more. These locations are public entities and have no expectation of privacy whatsoever.

I can understand wanting an individual volunteer’s privacy protected. But the method used so far has been to contact the observer ahead of time, tell them what the project is about, and ask for consent. If consent has not been given, no visit is made, and no photographs are taken. See the rules that each volunteer to surfacestations.org must follow

So you have to wonder this: Is NCDC asserting that the privacy interests of police and fire stations, park headquarters, waste water treatment plants, and a handful of individuals, outweighs the public interest in examining quality of data produced in NCDC records and subsequent NOAA reports and publicly funded research?

Urbana_WWTP_Detail_South_View.jpg

Does this waste water treatment plant measureing temperatures for the climate record really need privacy protection?

I said earlier we’d get back to something.

Dr. Roger Pielke, a senior climate researcher, of the University of Colorado, posted on his blog, his outrage at this action, calling it a “cover up”. Those are strong words coming from a congenial scientist. He also posted something even more shocking:

Pictures of these weather stations already exist, but they are being held from public view. Apparently some time ago weather service offices were issued digital cameras and told to do this work. The pictures were submitted to NCDC, and an archiving process begun, then stopped again for “privacy concerns”.

This is my position:

Given what has been seen so far at weather stations that have been inspected by myself and volunteers, it is clear that parts of the USHCN climate monitoring network are out of compliance with published siting standards and in disrepair. Given that the output of this network drives in part NOAA’s climate assessment, the public should demand a full and open accounting of the condition and data accuracy. If volunteer observers using NOAA equipment at private residences do not wish to have their location and the data it produces scrutinized by quality control methods, they have that right. But the data [produced by these stations should be removed from the climatic dataset because it will be unverifiable.

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13 thoughts on “NOAA/NCDC throws a roadblock my way

  1. Yes that is fascinating, though entirely predictable. The first rule of persevering ones bureaucratic fiefdom during what they would view as an attack (aka: light of day public scrutiny) is to obfuscate to the extent possible.
    Quite clearly, you are hot on a trail that they do not want to see traveled.
    They (the bureaucracy) do have a few distinct advantages on you: They’re being paid quite nicely (you’re not); they are virtually impossible to discipline or fire – so they can outlast the typical “attacker”.
    Hopefully, in this case, there is too much momentum for them to be able to slam the door shut and keep it shut.
    But, I will add, very nicely done Anthony! :- )

  2. I wrote a letter to the editors of the ER on Friday night on that concludes with this same issue. If printed it will have zero impact on NOAA policy, but at least I may get my two cents worth in.

  3. I made two attempts to find the Ft. Bragg Station. We followed the course GPS Lat and Long to the neighborhood, but the house was down a very narrow lane. Unable to visually ID the station, I called the regional NWS Office and asked for the name and address of the station volutneer, but they refused citing, privacy concerns. However, I left my contact information and asked it be forward to the station keeper, and if he would consent to a survey to contact me, which he did by e-mail after several days passed. We exchanged e-mail and he invited me to come by the station at a time we ageed would work for both of us. It was a very nice visit, he had some good background information on the old station locations. All the station managers I have interviewed so far were very cooperative. Access must be a NOAA issue.

  4. I’ve found that many photos (and names in captions) of NWS COOP volunteers are shown at the link here:
    http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/coop/coop_newsletter.htm
    The photos are of awards given to NWS COOP volunteers for their service (5-,10-,15-year, etc.)
    It’s a little bit of a jog to find out the exact station name from the photos, especially if a city/town has multiple COOP volunteers that are active.
    It may be well worth it to catalogue these photos in case they pull these from the web also. Years 1999-2001 and 2005-present are available in PDF, while 2002-2004 are online in HTML format.
    Surely they wouldn’t remove these as well?
    Where there’s a will…..

  5. Gerald, I sincerely thank you.
    This blows the “privacy concerns” out of the water, as they are violating their own edict by placing these newsletters on the web for full public view.
    The info in these newsletters posted on the web reveals just as much information, if not more, than the observer names posted in the MMS database.
    I have archived all the documents already.
    Thanks again.
    Anthony Watts

  6. Just a thought….this may be less a cover-up and more a “cover the asses til we can clean up those stations so nobody knows how remiss we’ve really been” up.

  7. I would recommend to anyone interested in seeing the sites accurately photographed that you write in to your legislators about this change. Seeing that the NOAA is publicly funded, the instruments are publicly funded and the results are informing national policy, it seems easy to make the case that access to them should be unfettered.
    The timing of the suddenly urgent need to protect the privacy of the monitoring volunteers is certainly coincidental. Privacy issues seems hard for the NOAA to defend given their own newsletters locating their volunteers and providing their photographs. Overall, this is a clear issue to present and would hopefully motivate at least some investigation from legislators.

  8. My dear Anthony, you really have set the cat among the pigeons.
    I agree with Mike W. It’s more a case of organisational embarrassment, than a conspiracy against the record. It won’t stop the Warmers attacking you though. Increasingly, Ad Hominem is their only weapon.

  9. Excellent work!
    My sincere hope is that similar scrutiny be made of global stations, not only US.
    In Finland, several reports on the reliability of station data are available. Especially changes in loclaity, environment etc have been made and the general view is that it is very difficult to calculate a plausible correction factor.
    Never-the-less the offical view (www.fmi.fi) is that UHI can be corrected???
    Believe who wants.

  10. Hey Anthony, I didnt realize just how bad things were with some of our NOAA Coop locations. I am a weather observer and have been for a lot of years. I often wondered why the local reporting stations overnight read much higher than me. The time it took for there temperatures to fall left me wondering. I live in a rural area in South Carolina and I use a Vantage Pro. I still use the old fashion mercury thermometer also. Digital thermometers are okay but they lose there accuracy over a short period of time and have to be recalibrated or replaced. Mercury thermometers were always the standard. Plus you are not dealing with capacitors or electronical sensors. I find my mercury still my favorite choice of measurement. Thank you for showing these photographs of location sites. Hopefuly the NOAA will renew these location sites as well as the failing equipment. Feel free to email me. I look forward to seeing if improvements will be made on the location sites you showed and the equipment that was failing.

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