Climate researchers' documents and e-mails have been stolen and posted on the Internet. Credit: iStockphoto

One of Britain's leading climate-research centres has had more than 1,000 files stolen from its computers and republished on the Internet. The cyber-attack is apparently aimed at damaging the reputations of prominent climate scientists.

The University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in Norwich confirmed today that e-mails and documents dating from 1991 to 2009 were illegally copied and subsequently published on an anonymous Russian server.

A link to the Russian server first appeared on 19 November on a relatively obscure climate-sceptic blog. The server was shut down just hours later, but the stolen material had already been distributed elsewhere on the Internet.

"We are aware that information from a server used for research information in one area of the university has been made available on public websites," says Simon Dunford, a spokesman for the University of East Anglia. "This information has been obtained and published without our permission and we took immediate action to remove the server in question from operation."

The volume of the information is too large to "currently confirm that all of this material is genuine", Dunford says, adding that the university will undertake an internal investigation and has already involved the police in the enquiry.

Some climate-sceptic bloggers are already poring over the posted material, which includes e-mails allegedly sent by the CRU's director Phil Jones to fellow climate researchers, including Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Mann is the author of a widely cited assessment of past climate records, known as the hockey-stick graph, which shows a pronounced global-warming trend during the latter part of the twentieth century1.

"I'm not going to comment on the content of illegally obtained e-mails," says Mann. "However, their theft constitutes serious criminal activity. I'm hoping that the perpetrators will be tracked down and prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows." Jones declined to comment on the matter.

With less than three weeks to go until the start of the United Nations' climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Mann doubts that the timing of the attack is a coincidence. "The deniers will probably do anything they can to distract the public from the reality of the problem [of climate change], and the threat that it poses," he says. "Cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes, stolen from private e-mails, is the best they've got."