The Obama administration is teaming up with tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Intel to roll out web-based tools for policy makers and the public to better understand likely climate change impacts in their communities. The White House announced its climate data initiative, which is part of the administration’s broader “Climate Action Plan” unveiled in June 2013, on Wednesday morning.
The centerpiece of the initiative is a new climate data portal that launched in a beta phase as part of the data.gov website — climate.data.gov. This portal features climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA, as well as other federal agencies, universities, and nonprofits, in a bid to make “federal data about our climate more open, accessible, and useful to citizens, researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.” The first topic to be addressed on climate.data.gov is going to be coastal flooding and sea level rise risks.
According to a White House fact sheet distributed to reporters, the website already includes more than 100 curated datasets, web services, and tools that can help communities plan for climate change impacts.
“Over time, these data and resources will expand to provide information on other climate-relevant threats, such as to human health, energy infrastructure, and our food supply,” the fact sheet said.
The release of climate data comes out of a recognition that the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the U.S., particularly in the form of more frequent and severe heat waves, wildfires, and heavy precipitation events. In addition, sea level rise is an increasing threat to coastal communities, especially in cities like New York, Norfolk, Miami and New Orleans. The Obama administration may also be betting that there will be more support for its actions to reduce the severity of climate change through measures such as EPA regulations of power plants if more data reaches the public’s fingertips.
The climate data initiative will be publicly unveiled at an event in Washington on Wednesday evening. Prior to this effort, climate science data has been buried in bureaucratic stovepipes at more than a dozen federal agencies, ranging from NASA to the Department of Defense. Even within a single agency, multiple sub-departments have maintained different datasets, making it nearly impossible for policy makers and the public to access. For example, NOAA runs the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which is the official repository of U.S. climate data, but NOAA’s climate research is led by a separate division, as is the agency’s short-to-medium range climate forecasting.
The White House framed its climate data push as an integral component of the president’s emphasis on boosting America’s resilience in the face of extreme weather and climate events, which have cost the country record amounts in recent years.
“Even as we work to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and expand renewable energy generation, we need to take steps to make our communities more resilient to the climate change impacts we can’t avoid — some of which are well underway,” said John Podesta, a counselor to the president and one of the top aides working on climate issues in the West Wing, and presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren, in a White House blog post. “This effort will help give communities across America the information and tools they need to plan for current and future climate impacts,” they said.
The open climate data push includes a NASA and NOAA “innovation challenge” to foster the development of coastal flooding tools.
In addition, the initiative is also involving agencies not normally thought of as having much to do with climate science, such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is part of the Defense Department. That intelligence agency, along with others, is releasing new map data of U.S. infrastructure, including bridges, roads, railroad tunnels, canals, and river gauges.
Foremost among the private sector climate data initiatives highlighted by the White House is Google’s commitment to donate a petabyte, which is equal to 1,000 terabytes, of cloud computing storage to help support the creation of high-resolution maps and data crunching tools that are available to the public.
According to the White House, Google is also announcing partnerships with university scientists to donate as many as 50 million hours of high performance cloud computing on the Google Earth Engine geospatial analysis platform. The company is also committing to helping to develop a new, ultra-high resolution global terrain model that could greatly improve flood risk analysis.
In addition to Google’s work, mapmaker CartoDB is announcing new grants for creating climate data-driven tools that would use CartoDB’s infrastructure. Another mapmaker, Esri, which makes the widely used ArcGIS software used by city planners, is also donating some of its resources to encourage climate science-relation innovation. Esri launched a climate-focused “geo-collaboration portal” on Wednesday, where citizens and professionals can go online to discover, contribute, and share resources critical to confronting the impacts of climate change.
“We felt it was important to establish this collaborative network of individuals and organizations who use GIS to come together to combat the impacts of climate change,” said Esri president Jack Dangermond in a statement.
Also, Microsoft Research is also providing climate scientists and policy makers with free access to some of their cloud computing resources, in the form of grants to 40 awardees. Each grant would provide up to 180,000 hours of free cloud computing time and 20 terabytes of cloud storage. Microsoft is also rolling out a new data resource called “Adaptable FetchClimate,” for accessing past and present climate observations and for climate projection information.
The White House is also partnering with the Intel Corporation, which will host regional hackathons to spur the development of climate resilience tools.
Nonprofit groups are also part of the White House’s climate resilience strategy. Climate Central, a nonprofit climate news and research organization, is planning to release new online tools to assess local sea level rise risks.
“Today Climate Central is committing to launch a next-generation sea level rise and coastal flood risk tool for every state in the U.S. We have already published prototypes for New York, New Jersey, and Florida. We’ll be releasing a major tool upgrade for those states next week, and then releasing tools for all other coastal states over the spring and summer,” Ben Strauss, director of Climate Central’s sea level rise program, told Mashable.
Note: Andrew Freeman was previously a reporter at Climate Central.