NOAA scientists cleared of misuse of climate data

An inquiry by a federal watchdog agency found no evidence that scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manipulated climate data to buttress the evidence in support of global warming, officials said on Thursday.

The inquiry, by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, focused on e-mail messages between climate scientists that were stolen and circulated on the Internet in late 2009 (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department). Some of the e-mails involved scientists from NOAA.

Climate change skeptics contended that the correspondence showed that scientists were manipulating or withholding information to advance the theory that the earth is warming as a result of human activity.

In a report dated Feb. 18 and circulated by the Obama administration on Thursday, the inspector general said, “We did not find any evidence that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data.”

Nor did it find evidence that Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s top official, testified inaccurately to Congress in stating that the correspondence did not undermine climate science, the report said.

The finding comes at a critical moment for NOAA as some newly empowered Republican House members seek to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, often contending that the science underpinning global warming is flawed. NOAA is the federal agency tasked with monitoring climate data.

The inquiry into NOAA’s conduct was requested last May by Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who has challenged the science underlying human-induced climate change. Inhofe was acting in response to the controversy over the e-mail messages, which were stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, a major hub of climate research.

Inhofe asked the inspector general of the Commerce Department to investigate how NOAA scientists responded internally to the leaked e-mails. Of 1,073 messages, 289 were exchanges with NOAA scientists.

The inspector general reviewed the 1,073 e-mails and interviewed Lubchenco and staff members about their exchanges. The report did not find scientific misconduct. It did however, challenge the agency over its handling of some Freedom of Information Act requests in 2007. And it noted the inappropriateness of e-mailing a collage cartoon depicting Inhofe and five other climate skeptics marooned on a melting iceberg that passed between two NOAA scientists.

The report was not a review of the climate data itself. It joins a series of investigations by the British House of Commons, Pennsylvania State University, the InterAcademy Council, and the National Research Council into the leaked e-mails that have exonerated the scientists involved of scientific wrongdoing.

NOAA welcomed the report, saying that it emphasized the soundness of its scientific procedures and the peer review process. “None of the investigations have found any evidence to question the ethics of our scientists or raise doubts about NOAA’s understanding of climate change science,” said Mary Glackin, the agency’s deputy undersecretary for operations, in a statement.

But Inhofe said the report was far from a clean bill of health for the agency and, contrary to its executive summary, showed that the scientists “engaged in data manipulation.”

“It also appears that one senior NOAA employee possibly thwarted the release of important federal scientific information for the public to assess and analyze,” he said, referring to an employee’s failure to provide material related to work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a different body that compiles research, in response to a Freedom of Information request.