UA prof told to safeguard questioned climate files

(ARIZONA DAILY STAR)   A nationally prominent climate change researcher at the University of Arizona has been asked by a U.S. senator not to destroy any records he has with a tie to a global controversy over e-mails raising questions about the scientific integrity of some climate scholars.

The letter went to UA professor Malcolm Hughes from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, acting on behalf of Republican staff members of a Senate committee who are investigating what has become popularly known as “Climategate.” The UA’s legal office also received a similar request this week from Inhofe.

The investigation stems from a series of hundreds of e-mails that became public about two weeks ago after they were hacked from a computer server at the University of East Anglia in England.

Many of the e-mail messages, which date back to the mid-1990s, appeared to critics to show unseemly manipulation of scientific data. Critics say the messages indicate the scientists who wrote them, who believe in human-caused climate change, wanted to hide key data or keep information from being publicly released, to make climate-change skeptics look bad.

Hughes and others, however, say that while the e-mails clearly look bad, the critics have taken their meanings out of context.

One of the most prominent scientists who wrote some of the controversial e-mails, Michael Mann of Penn State University, has for a decade worked closely with the UA’s Hughes, on papers that have been at the center of scientific debate over global warming.

Dozens of e-mails sent and received by Hughes are among those leaked from the stolen batch of messages. The Star is sifting through them and so far has found none he wrote that resembled the controversial e-mails in tone or substance. However, Hughes did receive at least one controversial e-mail from a scientist at the center of the storm.

Hughes, Mann and a third scientist, Raymond Bradley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, collaborated on papers that propounded what’s known as the “hockey stick” theory. It says that tree-ring records and other data have shown that the Earth’s temperature rose faster in the last decade of the 20th century than it rose in any other decade for at least the past 1,300 years. When graphed, that trend looks like a hockey stick.

Many climate skeptics have sought to discredit that theory since about 2000. Although it was largely upheld by a National Academy of Sciences study in 2006, the skeptics who doubt the presence of human-caused global warming continue to find flaws in it. Some of the purloined e-mails deal directly with controversies in that theory.

Because Hughes’ name surfaced in the e-mails, Inhofe wrote him that the Senate minority staffers may be seeking some records he has in connection with the British university and asked him to keep the records secure.

“Please note that there are severe civil and criminal penalties, federal and state, for the destruction of certain materials,” Inhofe wrote Monday. He sent similar letters to a host of other researchers, including Mann and Bradley, federal officials and other university officials around the country.

“It’s the kind of thing I’ll be talking to the university administration about, to make sure we do the right thing,” Hughes said in an interview Tuesday. “I have no intention of not following Arizona or federal law in connection with public records.”

UA officials declined to comment in detail Tuesday on Inhofe’s letter because they hadn’t formally received it, UA spokesman Paul Allvin said.

“We’re not in the business of destroying public records. We’re all stewards of public records,” said Allvin, UA’s associate vice president of communications.

One e-mail that has raised particular ire among climate change skeptics came in 1999 from Phil Jones, then and now director of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU). He wrote that he had used a “trick” employed by Mann in other work to “hide the decline” in global temperatures as shown by tree-ring data since 1960. Jones temporarily stepped down from his job Tuesday while the university investigates the e-mails and their implications.

During the 20th century, tree ring data and weather instruments both showed consistent temperature rises until about 1960. Since then, tree ring data has stopped showing temperature increases even as they’ve continued in normal weather instrument data.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Mann said Jones’ word choice was poor. But he said scientists often use the word “trick” to refer to a good way to solve a problem, “and not something secret.” The researchers stopped using post-1960 tree ring data, but that was never hidden and has been in the scientific literature for more than a decade, Mann said.

In another e-mail, written in October of this year, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, wrote to Mann: “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.”

In a third e-mail, in 2005, Jones wrote to Hughes, Bradley and Mann, “I’m getting hassled by a lot of people to release the CRU station temperature data. Don’t any of you three tell people that the UK has a Freedom of Information Act!”

On Tuesday, UA’s Hughes said skeptics have taken some of these e-mails out of context and that these interpretations demonstrate “nothing more than the ignorance of the person making the interpretation.”

But “others on their face do not look very good,” Hughes said.

Of Jones’ e-mail on the post-1960 tree ring data, Hughes said, “Could he have worded it better? Knowing it would be released, sure. But it doesn’t mean what it’s been taken to mean.”

But in his news release last week announcing the “Climategate” investigation, Inhofe said the stakes in the e-mail controversy are significant, “as it appears that the basis of federal programs, pending EPA rulemakings and cap and trade legislation was contrived and fabricated.”

“Moreover, it appears that, in an attempt to conceal the manipulation of climate data, information disclosure laws may have been violated,” wrote Inhofe, a longtime skeptic of human-caused global warming theories.

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