Mar 2015 - White House Climate Data Initiative includes DRI partnership with Google

Scientists to model water consumption across the globe and produce drought monitoring products in near real-time using vast cloud computing resources


RENO / LAS VEGAS – In a White House press release launching the President’s Climate Data Initiative this week DRI was mentioned as a stakeholder in the Administration’s commitment to increase partnerships on climate change research. The initiative will make government-held data more accessible to the public, entrepreneurs, researchers and others as fuel for innovation and economic growth.

DRI’s role in the White House Climate Change Initiative falls under its private sector commitments. Through the Climate Data Initiative, the White House is issuing a call to top private-sector innovators to leverage open government data resources and other datasets to build tools for communities to use and to forge cross-sector partnerships to make this data useful to communities.

Researchers at DRI, along with colleagues from University of Idaho and University of Nebraska, will work with Google to create new web-based drought mapping and monitoring tools for the entire continental United States in near real-time and model water consumption by agriculture and natural vegetation across the globe. Both projects will leverage the Federal Government’s extensive, freely-available climate-relevant data resources and significant cloud computing and storage resources donated by Google.

Landsat 8 true color image of the Fallon, Yerington, and Walker Lake area acquired June 21, 2013 shown in the Google Earth Engine environment."We (DRI) were honored when Google reached out to us to help them produce high impact products in support of President Obama's Climate Data Initiative," said Dr. Stephen G. Wells, DRI President. "This is exactly the kind of public, private-sector partnership that will foster innovation in the higher-education research community and allow us, as scientists, to create data-driven solutions for businesses, communities, resource managers and policy makers.” 

Leading DRI’s effort will be assistant research professor Justin Huntington, Ph.D., and staff research scientist Charles Morton, who specialize in evaluating consumptive water use from agriculture and rangelands through the use of satellite remote sensing.

Utilizing access to one petabyte (1,000 terabytes) of cloud storage and 50 million donated hours of computing time on Google’s Earth Engine environmental cloud computing platform, the scientists will be able to mine, process and analyze an ongoing 30-year archive of high resolution optical and thermal images taken of Earth by the Landsat satellites – “in a matter of seconds,” says Morton, compared to hours and even days with traditional computing systems.

Landsat 8 derived map of plant water use (ET) for the same image shown above. Blue and green indicates high ET, where tan and brown indicates low ET.Each ‘pixel’ of a Landsat image captures a 30-meter by 30-meter area so the researchers can see at scales fine enough to record when farmers irrigate fields, or natural land surfaces become wet, and water evaporates from soil surfaces and transpires through plant leaves. These processes combined are termed evapotranspiration (ET). ET information is an essential to improving climate change forecasts and in discussions of water consumption rates among agriculture, cities, developing nations and the natural environment.

To help predict and track “flash” and extended droughts across the United States, Huntington and his colleagues plan to also create state-of-the-art drought monitoring tools that will utilize existing near real-time gridded weather with the high resolution satellite ET data from the developed tools on Google Earth Engine.

“This project will allow us to take a research program that was originally implemented for water rights management by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the Nevada Division of Water Resources, and expand it to a global scale to help communities and businesses better understand consumptive water use and drought,” says Huntington, who is also a member of the NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat Science Team.

The scientists also note, however, that even with these vast new cloud computing resources, the key resource remains the creation of new satellite data that can be used to continue this long term record. University of Idaho collaborator and water resources professor Richard Allen explains - "as time goes on, water resources will become more scarce in arid environments, and it is imperative that we have ample satellites focused on earth that see processes at the human scale, specifically Landsat satellites." 

Current funding for Landsat 9 is uncertain and insufficient and may delay its launch until 2022. It takes about 5 years to design and build a Landsat. The recently launched Landsat 8 satellite has a design life ending in 2018, and previous Landsats have already stopped providing data. 

“With four Landsat thermal satellites flying at the same time the water resource community would be able to create a much more accurate, and timely assessment of water use and drought conditions on a global scale,” added University of Nebraska, Lincoln collaborator Dr. Ayse Kilic. “The more ‘cameras’ we have in orbit the more data we’ll have to better understand, manage, and prepare for the real-world impacts associated with climate change.”

Through the Climate Data Initiative, data from DRI’s projects will be accessible to the public on a regularly updated website; insights gathered from maps and data will provide local communities with information to better understand changes in water use associated with changes in land use and climate.