Thinking Tech

Visualizing the impact of climate change

Visualizing the impact of climate change

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It's getting easier, thanks in part to Microsoft.

Researchers are mapping what one scientist -- U.C. Berkeley biometereology professor Dennis Baldocchi -- calls "the breathing of the biosphere," using a tool based on new technology developed at Microsoft Research.

The tool lets Baldocchi and his colleagues combine and visualize large amounts of climate data, both from NASA satellites and from more than 500 ground-based sensors, called FLUXNET towers, that are positioned in several countries around the world. The FLUXNET towers measure changes in carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, ozone and so on, while the satellites can show, for instance, worldwide changes in vegetation.

The data can be accurate down to a single kilometer and can be scaled by time to show changes over periods ranging from five minutes to years.

Microsoft's contribution to this project is MODISAzure, a cloud-based technology that processes and downloads all this data onto a PC, which is cheaper and less complicated to use than a supercomputer.

"The computation is not quite supercomputer scale, but it's near -- just below supercomputer size," says Catherine van Ingen, an architect at Microsoft Research. "It used to take about a month and a half of downloading the data and making sure you got it all and bookkeeping, and this technology breaks down the resource barrier and the tedium barrier. We're just at the forefront of cloud computing -- this will enable a new generation of science."

Baldocchi says scientists are still thinking of new ways to use all the climate data that's become available. He, for instance, is trying to measure global evaporation. If the climate is getting warmer and the atmosphere holds more moisture, he asks, is evaporation greater or are higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere neutralizing evaporation by restricting openings in the pores of plants? (Plants convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and starch through a process called photosynthesis).

"Up until now, people have not attempted to come up with global evaporation rates that directly measure river runoff and precipitation and estimate evaporation in a way that bounds the errors on different techniques," he says. "Now we can get global integrated values and maps by month and year in great detail. There's not just one number for the Amazon watershed."

Scientists could also use the data to project forward and backward in time -- they could measure the impact on the environment of the freeze in the U.S. in the spring of 2002, or the heat wave in Europe in 2003, or the retreat of the glaciers in Alaska. They could also correct errors in past climate models that were built on less data -- and are therefore less accurate -- than what's available now.

Better data should mean better decisions on climate policy and on the environment.

For more information on FLUXNET, the worldwide network of climate sensors, go here. (You can see where the FLUXNET towers are positioned in the image at the top of the page).

More information on Microsoft's MODISAzure and how it works is here.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure