Earth, environment and climate

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“Preemptive impact assessment enabled by digital twins”

In recent years, the issues related to climate change and human activity’s impact on the environment and climate have increased in importance. These issues require quick decisions to avoid damage and adverse consequences caused by unsustainable behaviours, such as the unaware use of natural resources, from which there is no turning back.

There is no future for humanity on this planet if we do not intervene with all the resources we have at our disposal (not only financial and political but also technological) on climate change. We have the opportunity to use policies and technology to mitigate climate change and also to adapt to the climate conditions which we will face.

Innovation could solve the potential dichotomy between saving the environment and guaranteeing the development of society. We have the technologies to push both goals forward.

For instance, HPC, physical modelling and AI would enable the development of “digital twins”1 of the Earth. It would thus be possible to make a step change in climate models and simulate the future climate evolution via a combination of extreme scale physical modelling and artificial intelligence. Moreover, these models would be a valuable tool in simulating the impact of our actions (or inaction). Benefits here are immense: consider the possibility to predict, or eventually prevent, environmental disasters; predicting the place, time and intensity of a natural disaster (such as hurricanes) allows us to design evacuation plans, identify safe areas, and save lives. And the ability to predict climate events decades in the future can help assess whether and how to construct buildings in a given area and offer guidelines for sustainable urban planning.

Very importantly, one could simulate how our actions could help achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. Climate forecasting is fundamental for tackling environmental and climate damage potential issues, enabling science to formulate scenarios in the medium and the long term (e.g., decades). This is one of the most critical fields. The aforementioned technologies can represent a great opportunity as an innovation accelerator, with a direct and perceivable impact on human well-being.

For example, the use of HPC in the meteorological industry enables the processing of a large amount of data and information, hugely available from multiple sources (i.e., satellites, balloons, aircraft, sensors), both historical and real-time. AI will then help to improve this processing and to identify patterns, providing information2 and tools to act. IoT allows the reception and elaboration of data to monitor weather conditions in a specific geographic area. They transform data into valuable information, with a creative approach. For example, if many cars in a given area use windscreen wipers simultaneously, one may assume in real-time that it is currently raining heavily. The HPC and eventually Quantum Computing are already playing a crucial role in this field.

Through parallel computing and Supercalculators, it is possible to create sophisticated models and run them in real-time to monitor the climate in every moment and foresee what could happen, with a degree of certainty previously not achievable.

However, current climate models still have unresolved systematic errors and low resolution, so significant research investments and long iterations are needed: this is where HPC and eventually Quantum Computing can help. Furthermore, Artificial Intelligence will be capable of enhancing these complex models, although these developments could take a long time and a lot of resources. But alongside the opportunities, here come the risks, particularly the underuse of technologies. Moreover, evaluating costs and potential “side effects”, primarily ethical and legal consequences, can slow down the whole innovation process, maybe with different behaviours and rules from other countries, leading countries and companies to dangerous trade-offs.

Those applications require continuous data management, so public and private institutions have to face the risk of cyber-attacks; consequently, research infrastructures have to build solid cybersecurity systems to avoid manipulation and misuse of data and information.

Climate prediction and management will be the perfect field for public and private entities to work together, with the goal to co-design applications. Private companies could link and translate all this knowledge from science into relevant applications to bring valuable products and tools to the end-user in different fields, reinforcing people awareness and conscious behaviours.

Nowadays, many clear and “quick” opportunities exist in these fields. Sharing big data about climate and the environment has already enabled the development of applications and services that citizens use in their daily lives. Today, we can easily access the weather conditions and the air quality in our city, and we can be alerted in real-time on environmental or meteorological hazards. However, these are advances and challenges that require knowledge and a continuous learning process to identify what can be helpful to citizens and society. Public institutions must verify on which technologies these applications are based and advise citizens about the most valuable and correct services.

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