IBM and our changing climate

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As a long-time IBMer and environmental scientist, I’ve been fortunate to work on many efforts that not only help our clients but can help the world. This follows a long tradition at the core of IBM about doing good for our environment, which began as a Corporate policy in 1971. This commitment has extended to issues around our changing climate, including setting and meeting three greenhouse gas emission reduction goals between 1990 and 2016. Because of this leadership, IBM has received several environmental awards, including one earlier this month.

In an era when the importance of acknowledging that our climate is changing is often challenged, we should recall IBM’s enduring commitment: why IBM stands firm in supporting the Paris Climate Agreement and why we lead in the fight against climate change.

“Connecting to this stance, IBM issued a call for proposals last summer for climate research that can leverage our IBM World Community Grid for crowdsourced computing power, cloud-based storage, and data from The Weather Company. The response to this call was overwhelming. We heard from over 70 research groups interested in these resources to support their work to understand climate change. We are now finalizing the evaluation of the proposals to determine which research will be supported. You can contribute to the effort by registering your devices to be part of the World Community Grid.

We will be talking about this activity at the upcoming SXSW conference in a panel called,  “Saving the Planet:  What’s Tech Got to Do With It?

We have long-standing work from IBM Research and The Weather Company related to a critical environmental science, namely meteorology. More recent efforts initiated out of IBM Research with a focus on environmental stewardship and sustainability include The Jefferson Project at Lake George (see also the Darrin Fresh Water Institute and Jefferson Project at Lake George as well as this paper, Inner Workings: Smart-sensor network keeps close eye on lake ecosystem), the Vermont Weather Analytics Center and Green Horizon. You can read more about these and other efforts in IBM here and here.

Although much of my own work at IBM has focused on improving weather forecasts for business applications, I worked on climate problems at NASA in the 1980s. Today, our team at IBM Research is now looking at some of the scientific challenges associated with planning for the impact of climate change. Like weather, many of our clients need an understanding of what will likely happen to mitigate such impacts. Unlike weather, many of the decisions associated with climate are of a strategic not tactical nature, such as determining how and what changes in infrastructure may be required that take years to build and have a lifetime of decades.  As an example, consider our recent paper, Impacts of projected urban expansion and global warming on cooling energy demand over a semiarid region.

While the science has continued to evolve, the core concerning the influence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on the climate has long been established. We saw evidence over three decades ago when I was at NASA. The difference today is a significant reduction in the uncertainty and increase in precision, and a far greater understanding of the impacts.

A climate tipping point

So, let’s be clear about the facts. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide has passed 400 parts per million. That level last occurred over three million years ago, when both the average temperature and sea level were much higher than today.

Yes, the global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1°C since 1900. That means that the last century is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. This increase could reach 5°C by the end of this century.

We are at a tipping point. Despite slowing growth in carbon emissions, we will likely exceed 2°C of warming within two decades.

Yes, the global average sea level has risen by about seven to eight inches since 1900. However, this rise has been accelerating – three inches in the last 25 years. It could be feet later in this century. But it is far more than polar bears stranded on melting ice.

The oceans are not just rising. They are warming, and becoming more acidic with lower levels of oxygen. That will have a negative impact on life in our oceans, which will impact the global food chain.

Let’s be clear about the facts. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide has passed 400 parts per million.

Temperature and precipitation extremes are becoming more common. That has led many to think that the impacts are only related to increased risk from severe storms. For example, there were 16 weather-related events in the US in 2017, each of which had over $1B of impact, for a total of $306.2B. This is nicely summarized in the map below as provided by NOAA.

Weather event map of the US

Weather event attribution

But how many and what kind of these events can be attributed to a changing climate? We can begin to answer these questions. The U.S. wildfire season is three months longer than in 1940 and more intense. Tropical storms of greater intensity are being observed. There are more flooding events due to precipitation of greater intensity and coastal storm surge. Of course, there are also increased droughts, some of which are at a crisis stage like in South Africa or Iran.

There are aspects of such events, which cannot yet be attributed to a changing climate. They include more or stronger tornadoes, hail and severe thunderstorms as well as more frequent tropical storms. One reason is the reliable, detailed historical records only go back a couple of decades. We expect that this picture will become clearer in the near future.

But there are also some known unknowns. For example, what happens when there is less polar ice? The variability in temperatures that have been observed in North America and Europe this winter, may be examples of that. Methane is roughly 60 times more efficient as a greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide, although it is not as long-lived in the atmosphere. A large and unknown amount of methane is trapped in the permafrost within the tundra regions of the northern hemisphere. As these areas warm and the permafrost melts, how much methane will be released and how will that accelerate the current warming?

I will follow up with another blog to talk about the societal and economic impact of these changes to our climate.

There are things that you can do to help

You can become more informed and help others to learn more. There is a wealth of material such as on-line courses like Communicating Climate Change Scenarios, or from sources like The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the year-long digital series from The Weather Company, United States of Climate Change, investigating the impact of climate change across America, and how this has affected lives in each of the 50 states.

IBM Distinguished Engineer

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