Big Data Battles Global Climate Change

Big Data Battles Global Climate Change

By Lloyd Marino

Now that Autumn is here with falling temperatures reminding us that winter is on its way, global warming may not seem like such a hot topic. But remember, when it is winter here, it is summer for half the globe. Global warming needs to be a year-round concern.

August 2016 was the hottest August since reliable records started being kept in 1880. It followed the hottest July, hottest June, etc. going back to May 2015. August ties July 2016 for the hottest month ever. It was 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the average for August. While politicians continue to debate, the data show global climate change is real and a growing problem.

Mapping Climate Change

Fortunately, big data can help us fight back against a warming Earth. For instance, big data is helping track the effects of climate change:

  • The Google Earth Engine maps 40 years of satellite imagery to allow researchers to demonstrate the effects of climate change on lakes, shorelines, and global forest coverage. NASA’s Landsat provides the longest continuous global record of the global land surface. It monitors how humans and climate have changed the face of the Earth.
  • Another NASA project, the NASA Center for Climate Simulation uses supercomputers to digest mounds of data to model the future of climate change. It can store 19 petabytes of data.
  • Microsoft’s Madingley project will eventually simulate all ecological processes affecting all life on the land and sea. Researchers are already using it to model the carbon cycle and plan to add more simulations to the “General Ecosystem Model” such as the effect of humans on habitat loss. The model would allow leaders to see the results of policy decisions before they are made in the real world.

Solving Climate Change

Big data also goes beyond tracking the damage to becoming part of the solution to climate change problems. For instance:

  • In 2015, nearly 200 nations agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Paris Agreement. The U.S., China, Brazil, and 26 other nations have ratified the agreement. Big data will help measure global climate and ensure that signatories are keeping their promise.
  • The UN’s Big Data Climate Challenge, launched as part of 2014’s Climate Summit challenged the international academic, scientific, technology and policy communities to develop projects to use big data to drive action to help solve global climate change. The winners were the Global Forest Watch that uses satellite data and crowdsourcing to monitor and manage forest resources, and the Site-Specific Agriculture Big Data Team at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture which created a tool to use data on climate and harvests to help farmers make smart decisions about what to plant when that uses big data to predict how climate change has altered traditional wisdom of what crops work best in specific areas.
  • Opower uses big data to compile how much electricity local residents use and sends them reports comparing individuals to their neighbors in order to encourage them to use less. It achieves power savings through inspiring behavior changes. Since 2007, this has saved almost 6 billion kilowatts, enough to power Alaska and Hawaii for a whole year. This cut power plant carbon dioxide emissions by over nine billion pounds.

Additional Steps to Fight Climate Change

But big data can do more. Right now a big problem is policymakers’ reluctance to admit that global climate change exists. Big data can help show the extent of the problem by graphing temperature changes in states and political districts. Politicians who deny global climate change in the abstract will have greater difficulty when confronted with charts showing how it affects major cities under their jurisdiction.

Another danger of climate change is the increase in the sea level from melting ice. Big data can take existing satellite photos of coastal erosion and project them into the future, showing what areas are most likely to be submerged at different temperature levels. This data could help predict where new dams and sea barriers will be needed and where the government should encourage people to move to higher ground. This is a special problem as many major cities are located on the coast—including New York City and Los Angeles—and will be flooded as the waters rise.

I’ve discussed the Svalbard global seed vault before. It preserves over 850,000 seed samples. Researchers can use these seeds to try to make crops weather-resistant and breed in traits that will allow plants to survive on a warmer Earth and grow where nothing else can. Big data can track plant genes and help farmers determine what crops will be most successful under new weather conditions. This will reduce the damage a warmer earth will do to food sources.

Climate change is real and humanity needs to take steps to learn how to survive in a warming world and how to reduce the rate at which the temperature rises. Big data can help us chart the extent of the damage, predict where future problems will arise, and encourage people to reduce the discharge of emissions gases that are aggravating the problem. Big data, and the human ability to innovate with the help of data, are two of our most valuable weapons in the fight against global warming.

Image By: Dawid Małecki

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