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Can Big Data Help U.S. Cities Adapt to Climate Change?

White House data splurge meant to "change the game" on climate
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Credit: Ed Brown/Wikimedia Commons/climate.data.gov

Imagine a map that shows years of rising sea levels in a matter of seconds, and the water is surrounding your house. There might soon be an app for that.

That's the sort of visualization that the Obama administration believes can spark action toward climate adaptation in communities around the nation. To help push technologists to create these new climate tools, the White House launched a website yesterday that holds more than 100 data sets on coastal flooding.

Google is using reams of similar information—in this case, satellite images over Australia—to create a program that condenses years of overhead pictures into a time-lapse video that shows rising water around shrinking Pacific islands. One house after the other is surrounded by climbing seas.

"When you can make that connection between a climate event and your home, it can change the game," said Rebecca Moore, founder of Google Earth Engine, at the rollout of yesterday's White House Climate Data Initiative. "We hope to help people internalize the risk and care."

The climate material made public yesterday on Climate.Data.gov is a fraction of nearly 91,000 government data sets housed on Data.gov, a website providing raw information for 21 categories ranging from ethics and law to manufacturing and health.

Climate is a new addition to the White House's "Datapalooza" events. There have been two on public safety and at least one on education. The events recognized tech-savvy innovators who used government data to design phone apps and other services to help protect the public and promote learning.

So far, the climate-related information is geared toward coastal flooding, though the White House indicated that the menu will expand. Officials called the climate page a "pilot" project. It contains a list of "tools" created by federal agencies, universities and other organizations that local officials can use to determine the frequency of floods, the depth of water and the vulnerability of future subdivisions.

"Basically, we want to turn data into insight," said Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which is teaming with Intel to hold a "hackathon" that will pit software code writers against each other to develop climate apps. "We hope this will lead to [housing] development in less hazardous areas."

Helping cities help themselves
Surging Seas is one of the existing tools featured on the new website. It was designed by Climate Central to predict how far stormy ocean surges will reach into towns in Florida, New Jersey and New York. Altogether, the government Web page leads to 23 tools, including the National Stormwater Calculator, which estimates the amount of future rainfall anywhere in the United States.

That might help George Heartwell, the mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich. He said that future rainfall projections would be useful for his city when making budget decisions about the size of the stormwater collection system and for green infrastructure and permeable asphalt projects.

The city often relies on its own rainfall data, which comes at "some expense."

"You don't want to make the wrong decision, and either overinvest out of fear or underinvest" because of lack of knowledge, Heartwell said.

The climate site also encourages scientists and others to participate in "challenges"—contests to build the best apps that show coastal flooding and other climate impacts in specific communities. Other apps would be used as a "sensor kit" to measure temperature and humidity, something that might be used to teach people about the heat island effect in their hometowns.

Essentially, the president seems to be betting on the old saying that seeing is believing. An expansion of easy-to-use smartphone maps that show the risk of flooding to someone's house in 20 years could spur adaptation, the White House says.

"Through the use of data, visualizations, and simulations, you can help people understand their exposure to coastal inundation hazards and their increased vulnerability due to population increase and sea level rise," the new website says.

For all its usefulness with identifying climate risks, the data unleashed by the White House yesterday can't answer a key question: What can a community do, exactly, to avoid future damages?

Local data are out of reach
That's a challenge that often balances immediate benefits with future concerns. Should a town permit more shoreline homes to be built, or should it surrender some land—and tax revenue—to perhaps avoid flooding over the horizon?

In that sense, the data launch leaves the toughest discussions for later. It doesn't answer how a region will distribute the cost of protecting itself with sea walls, for example, or whether to abandon the riskiest areas, said Kirstin Dow, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina and an adaptation expert.

For now, local officials are trying to understand the risks of climate change, rather than figuring out what to do about it, Dow said. So the government's data can help with the big picture, as long as there are "climate translators" who can help smaller communities interpret their meaning, she added.

"The adaptation questions get right down into the local issues," Dow said, noting that the government's data effort won't be able to answer pinpoint questions that communities will need.

For example, barrier islands might need to know the depth of their water table to assess the real risk of flooding, while other communities might be thinking about resizing the pipes in their stormwater system to handle more runoff.

All sorts of information can help local leaders, even if it's not hyperspecific to the impacts on their roads, beaches and power systems, Dow noted. She recalled that officials in one coastal town, reached by a single causeway, learned recently the rate of sea-level rise in their area. That led to another question.

"How high is that road right now? We should check," one official said, according to Dow.

Is too much info a discouragement?
Opponents criticized the president's move as a politically themed effort to energize Democrats before tough midterm elections that threaten to give Republicans control of the Senate. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity accused Obama of "climate change fear mongering," when the real threat to families is climbing energy costs, it said.

"The administration's new climate change website will further bolster its fear-inducing vision of the future, which sounds more and more like a scene out of a Hollywood movie," said Laura Sheehan, the group's senior vice president of communications.

The website likely is a smart move for the White House overall, but it also poses some risks with public opinion, said Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor at Cornell University.

Threats outlined on maps can be tricky in that they allow people to compare their situation to those of others who may be in worse predicaments, he said. It's been demonstrated in some studies that this kind of dynamic can lead people into a false sense of security, he said. Some people may look at the flooding hot spots—like Florida—and think it may not be so bad in their state.

"By showing some people that they might be better off than their neighbors ... maybe this kind of undermines their motivation to do anything about climate change," he said.

At the same time, one of the biggest challenges with the issue is that people think the consequences are far away with the polar bears. So the website could create urgency with people who can see that severe flooding might happen in their state or city, he said.

Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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