Newsletter Fix the Planet: Can a virtual Earth help fight the climate?

Sentinel-5P, one of the satellites that will be used by Destination Earth

Medialab ESA/ATG

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Wednesday 30 March saw the launch of a €140 million European Union project to build ‘digital twins’ of Earth: detailed, interactive simulacra of the planet that will allow everyone from scientists to energy companies, to explore the impacts of climate change and how we are adapting to them.

Destination Earth is a hugely ambitious undertaking by the European Commission that has taken years to prepare. The researchers hope this could usher in a new level of granularity and precision in our projections of future climate change at the local level, so that governments can better prepare for extreme weather events like the floods that hit Germany and the countries neighbors last year.

But will this really change the dial on our ability to build more efficient flood defenses and develop more efficient renewable energy systems? I caught up with one of the main architects of the project, Peter Bauer of the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), to find out.

What is that?

The digital twins are being built by what is effectively a start-up based in Bonn, Germany, with an eventual staff of around 50 people. The team will bring together applied and computer science to create the interactive simulations, which will initially focus on replicating how extreme weather patterns change as global average temperatures rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the decades to come.

The twinnings also aim to help countries create dedicated areas for renewable energy installations, says Bauer: they could give an energy company new insight into how wind speeds are expected to change across the North Sea in the years to come, for example. Bauer likes to call digital twins an “interactive space” to explore “this metaverse of climate data.” By metaverse, he does not mean Meta’s vision of avatars and virtual reality, but “a good illustration of what is meant by interactivity: I can play with data in the four dimensions of space and time ; I can lock apps.

Haven’t we been here before?

The program emerged from the ruins of an even more ambitious climate change supercomputing project called ExtremeEarth, which the EU eventually canceled. But this time it’s happening. The budget was approved last December, which means funding is guaranteed until the end of 2024, but the whole enterprise is expected to last up to 10 years.

How is this different from typical climate patterns?

The level of detail it will provide at the local level – the resolution – is expected to be superior to most current climate change models. “Developing a high-resolution digital twin of planet Earth is vital if we are to meet the challenges of climate change,” says Tim Palmer of the University of Oxford, who had been one of the proponents of ExtremeEarth. “We know that the Earth is warming, but our knowledge of regional impacts is weak. The core of Destination Earth will be a new ultra-high resolution depiction of the climate system. »

The twins won’t be able to predict the next flood or storm in the coming months, due to the chaotic nature of the weather, says Erich Fischer of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. But they should help us plan better. “They can tell us about potentially invisible extreme weather events that we need to prepare for today and in the coming decades, and thus inform our decisions and planning, for example, of future cities or energy systems,” he says. Destination Earth is also expected to make more use of machine learning than most existing models, Bauer says.

What happens now?

Bauer and his colleagues are really in start-up mode. While the ECMWF builds many elements of the digital twins itself, it also outsources a lot. Last week, it launched a call for tenders for the adaptation to climate change component, in order to be able to simulate the changes in the decades to come. This week it put out a call for tenders for work on the extreme climate part of the twins, dealing with fires, pollution, floods and more. The team is also hard at work securing supercomputing resources – one system has been activated in Finland, one is being built in Italy, one is being negotiated in Spain – to run the simulation. They are all “pre-exascale” in terms of processing power, meaning they are rated at less than a million teraflops. The Finnish is the most powerful public supercomputer in the world, capable of 552,000 teraflops. By comparison, the UK’s most powerful supercomputer was powered up last November and is rated at 19,539 teraflops.

What impact will these digital twins really have?

Fischer says it is an “extremely ambitious and very innovative project.” Palmer hopes it will “start a revolution in Earth system modeling.” He believes that the arrival of exascale high-performance computing will make this change possible. “For the good of society around the world, we need it as soon as possible,” he says.

Ted Shepherd of the University of Reading, UK, says the new system should provide more realistic levels of detail for extreme weather events than current climate models. But he worries that expectations for how accurately digital twins can project the future impact of climate change are too high. Some of the most persistent uncertainties in climate models, such as low clouds, operate at scales too small to be captured by Destination Earth, but have global ramifications for global warming and its local impact. “So while the weather systems themselves will be simulated more realistically than at present, it is highly likely that the effect of climate change on these systems will remain highly uncertain,” he says.

Nor is the EU the only entity trying to build a digital twin of Earth on climate change. US technology company NVIDIA announced last November that it was building a digital twin “Earth-2”, to simulate climate change down to a resolution of one meter, rather than the 10 to 100 kilometer resolution usually used in the models. Bauer says his team is talking with NVIDIA about how they can work together. One of the key things about Destination Earth is that it is publicly funded, so the data should be free and open to use.

What are the next steps?

Digital twins will be active by June 2024 at the latest, so don’t be surprised if you start seeing new scientist stories a few months later about new scientific papers using the system to project future storm surges in Europe, or how future temperatures could affect solar panel production. A second phase of the post-2024 project should see the addition of new layers to the digital twins, around the oceans, biodiversity and geophysics (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). And what is the ultimate goal? “Bigger and better,” says Bauer. “Bigger in the sense that more applications and more people can use it. Better in the sense that we should be able to run more accurate models with the same computing power. We will learn a lot more.

More fixes

  • Wind and solar power generated a tenth of the world’s electricity last year, a record high. In total, more than 50 countries have now crossed the 10% mark, according to a report by think tank Ember.
  • Speaking of solar, the power source is having a moment in the UK despite the lack of subsidies in recent years. More than 30 large solar projects with a combined capacity of more than 3 gigawatts, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes, have planning permission and are expected to be built soon, according to a report by AMA Research. One to watch is the Cleve Hill solar farm in Kent, construction of which should begin in the coming months.
  • A date for your diary: next Monday will see the publication of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on how we are mitigating global warming. What to watch: careful consideration of carbon dioxide removals, the social aspect of how we reduce emissions and a focus on short-term action rather than what we do in the second half of the century.

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