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 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?
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.