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5 surprising ways computers are greening our planet

Since 1970, the number of natural disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled—caused, at least in part, by a .17 Celsius annual rise in global temperatures. Urban populations are exploding, and worldwide air pollution has risen by eight percent in five years. 32 million acres of forest are cut down each year, increasing CO2 emissions by upwards of 15 percent.

But scientists around the world are striving to reverse the devastation. They’re cleaning up our planet, decreasing fuel costs, saving forests, and tracking flood waters, to name just a few—and they’re using supercomputers to do it. 

1. Cleaning up the 5.25 billion pieces of plastic polluting our oceans

Message in a (plastic) bottle. "In some regions of the North Pacific there's more weight in plastic than there is in life." Courtesy the University of New South Wales.

It will take up to 500 years for the ten metric tons of plastic that end up in the world’s oceans each year to degrade. In the meantime, all those shampoo bottles and plastic shopping bags slosh against each other and break into tiny floating fragments. Plastic Adrift, a project by oceanographer Erik van Sebille, tracks the float path of discarded plastics to identify the source. Despite the massive accumulation of plastics in five huge gyres, only 1 percent of plastic is visible on the ocean’s surface. Van Sebille's next project is to locate the other 99 percent.

We know that there is plastic on the seafloor, plastic on beaches, and plastic inside the stomachs of marine animals, but we don’t know how much, and we don’t know where. ~Erik van Sebille, Utrecht University

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2. Tracking water quality with robots

<strong>Envirobot</strong> is equipped with sophisticated bio-sensors that help it track environmental contaminants. One of the chambers can house bacteria or fish cells to measure water toxicity. Courtesy EPFL International Media. Plastics aren’t the only pollutants in our water supply. Untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, and heavy metals also contaminate our lakes and rivers, creating an invisible toxic soup.

Envirobot, an eel-like swimming robot, autonomously collects water samples and tests them for a variety of contaminants, depending on which modules have been attached to its articulated body. If Envirobot senses a pollutant in a body of water, it can ‘swim’ to follow that current of toxicity back to the source.

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3. Cheaper wind energy

<strong>Greener gorge.</strong> The unreliablilty of wind energy limits its acceptance into the power grid. If utility operators know when to expect an influx of renewables, they will know when to take nuclear and coal plants offline. Courtesy Bala Sivakumar. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Gorge regularly experiences high wind speeds that could generate tremendous electrical power, if only scientists could harness it.

Wind power needs to be predictable and reliable, but the Gorge’s dramatic terrain produces a variety of complex effects that influence wind conditions and hamper prediction. More accurate forecasts will help integrate more wind energy into the grid and reduce the cost of electricity.

Improved wind forecasts have the potential to limit the use of expensive energy reserves such as coal and reduce the output of greenhouse gases, which can help mitigate climate change. ~Joe Olson, NOAA

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4. Reducing urban energy consumption

<strong>Green roofs</strong> on urban buildings can improve stormwater management, conserve energy, and reduce noise and air pollution. Courtesy Unsplash/chuttersnap.Cities account for 60-80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 80 percent of the global energy supply. Commercial and residential buildings require heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, and major appliances. But city officials struggle to analyze, visualize, and most importantly, translate the data from 15,000+ buildings into policy and program recommendations. Computer-aided benchmarking measures a building’s actual energy consumption against a performance baseline, and derives information about how buildings compare to similar buildings and the potential impact of energy efficiency improvements.

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5. Saving trees with drones

<strong>Drying out.</strong> Forests are threatened by many factors linked to climate change, including temperature increases and periods of drought. Courtesy Unsplash/Dominik Scythe.Increased temperatures and drought related to climate change are ravaging forests worldwide. If temperatures rise by just one degree Celsius, streamflow is reduced by five to seven percent, and established trees die. Tyson Swetnam of Cyverse uses drones to collect forest biomass data and analyzes it in real-time with high-performance computing. This determines which factors (groundwater availability, elevation, rainfall amounts, daily air temperatures) have the most impact on forest health, and which variety of trees are the most sensitive—and therefore at the most risk--due to climate fluctuations.

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