Think grey

Recently someone told me that they believe in the climate change but are not doing anything to help the planet because they do not want to sacrifice everything. That there are things they could not possibly give up. Conclusion? They might as well change nothing.

To prevent the climate change or at least to reduce its negative impact, we have to work together. In an ideal world, every inhabitant of our planet would change their behaviour and live an environment-friendly existence. However, it is not going to happen. We have too many climate sceptics and people who, while accepting that the climate change is a jeopardy, do not believe it is worth it to worry too much. Their main argument is that next generations will suffer most of the consequences – so why should we care?

Explaining to climate sceptics that they might be wrong is one of my main goals. I am not a psychologist but to my mind the other group will be also very hard to persuade. In this article I will focus mostly on the majority of the society: people who believe in climate problems, would like to change something but do not want to sacrifice their whole life to save the world. Please bear in mind that when I say majority, I base it only on my observations, not any data. Even if I am wrong, it is still a large group that should be targeted.

Where does that black and white thinking come from? Why can’t we accept that we do not have to be perfect? Perfectionism has been researched in numerous psychological studies. Yet, still so many people have to deal with consequences of this character trait in many areas of their lives. Instead of helping us to do an amazing job, it hinders all our efforts. Better is the enemy of good. Even when we are saving the planet.

You might think that we, climate scientists, young researchers who care a lot about the dire situation in which the Earth is now, are doing everything right. It is not exactly true. Yes, we are trying to do what we can – but not more. We are still human beings, with all our flaws.

Remember that we work together. This often means commuting quite far, many times even flying. What can I do about the fact that the conference relevant for my research takes place in Philadelphia? I have to use the plane, no matter how badly I want to avoid it. Because planes are one of the worst enemies of our planet, this is the fact. However, in order to do my research, I need to know about results of other scientists all over the world. In principle we could use video conferencing. And we do but it is far less effective than meeting other researchers in person. Because most of the ideas are created when we talk outside the official conference events.

Some universities tried to introduce travel funds not according to the money one spends on the travel but on the carbon footprint produced by the journey. I hope they will forget about such ideas soon. Yes, we should encourage alternative ways of travelling when they are feasible, for example one can get from London to Paris in a reasonable time by train. However, if one is unlucky enough to have a meeting in the U.S., it is just not fair.

Let us assume that we are already in the meeting. We switch on the lights, the computer, the projector, the air condition… There is coffee and water served in plastic cups. There are biscuits prettily wrapped in plastic bags. Another coffee break, another cup (because I managed to lose mine). And it continues…

These little things are what matters. I am not happy that they happen and I think we should change them. However, I still attend these meetings because I find them valuable for the climate research. Also, in my everyday life I try to waste as little as possible, save electricity etc. I know I could carry a mug with me and use it instead of plastic cups. But you know what? I would rather carry my laptop so that I can do some work on the train. Especially now that I cycle to the train station (no greenhouse gases produced!) and I do not want my backpack to be too heavy.

Later we go to the lunch. I do not remember a meal without any conversation about vegetarianism and its impact on the climate. I believe that reducing the meat consumption is an important part of helping the planet. Veganism is even more environment-friendly. Having said that, I do not think that meat eaters are doing something wrong. Especially when they are aware of how much greenhouse gases are released in the process of meat production and they try to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Cultivating the myth that we have to cut everything out in order to make the positive impact does not help our planet. Of course if we all went vegan, the release of CO2 would decrease but a traditional (in some countries) meat-free Friday has a good impact too. Why would we condemn them people for indulging in a favourite steak once a week? Every little step counts!

When it comes to the actual research, there is no weather and climate prediction without computers. Supercomputers. Super-power-hungry-computers. We cannot forget that every weather prediction releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Should we then stop doing our research to prevent it? I doubt it would do us any good. Work is being done to develop more effective and less harmful algorithms but the problem will persist.

Can we be fully environment-friendly then? Yes and no. There are people who take it to the extreme. They eat only unprocessed plant-based foods, they live completely waste-free, do not travel, do not use electricity etc. It seems to be doable and if this lifestyle works for them, then it is great, but… I refuse to live like that. I am sure that we can live quite relaxed and pleasant lives and still do not do too much harm to the planet. The point is that we all have to do that. We all have to make some changes, no matter how small they would be.

You do not have to be perfect. If you feel that you can change something, then go for it! Do not beat yourself up for taking a super long shower because it was so pleasant. Do not feel like a failure for using a car when you were too tired to cycle to work. Just think about what you can do to reduce the harm that we, the whole of society, do to the planet. Listen to Paul McCartney: Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Do what you can – and enjoy what you do not want to sacrifice.

Article originally published on my personal blog.

What can Machine Learning do for Climate Science ?

Firstly, what is Machine Learning, other than a “sexy” buzzword used by the science community to make statistics sound cool? Well, per Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Inc. and an associate professor at Stanford it is “The science of getting computers to act without being programmed”. That statement leaves a lot to the imagination. One might start off by thinking of movies like I-Robot, Her and Ex Machina. For this post let’s stay grounded and say that Machine Learning explores the study and construction of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions from data. So, what can such an algorithm do for Climate Science? Turns out a lot.

 

Dr Claire Monteleoni, Assistance Professor at George Washington University, uses Machine Learning to track climate models. She along with many others are building a new field of Climate Informatics, a term she coined, with the aim of encouraging collaborations between climate scientists and Machine Learning researchers in order the bridge the gap between data and understanding. In her paper [1] Tracking Climate Models, she demonstrates the advantage of a Machine Learning approach for combining the predictions of multiple climate models. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently use about 20 climate models to make informed decisions and predictions on climate change.  This paper introduces the use of an online learning algorithm called Learn-α to make predictions that match or surpass that of the best climate model.

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Machine Learning is also useful in application where there is little data or the data is sparse. For example, global maps of the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2). Observations of sea surface pCO2 are taken mostly by commercial ships and consequently are sparse in both time and space, especially before the 1990s. Knowledge of this pCO2 is essential to investigate the variation of the ocean CO2 sink, from which data comparisons to the Global Carbon Budget can be made. To “fill in the gaps” Dr Peter Landschützer, from ETH Zürich, employed a Forward-Feed Neural Network. Neural Networks are based on the way the biological brain solves problems, using a large cluster of neurons connected by axons.

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Finally, looking a bit closer to home, the Informatics Lab at the Met Office are applying Machine Learning techniques to traffic cameras. They are currently undertaking a project which will use data taken from traffic cameras to train a machine to recognize the weather. This is especially useful when considering snow. Snow is the hardest weather to forecast as it depends on small differences in pressure, temperature and heights of clouds. To know if it’s snowy it’s much easier to look at the ground. From the images on the traffic cameras the amount of white could tell you and furthermore characterise the snowy weather. What’s particularly cool about this project is that all the code and data is freely available on the Informatics Lab website http://www.informaticslab.co.uk

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To conclude, we can see many applications of Machine Learning from combining the strengths of different Climate models to just wondering if it’s snowing.  The field of Climate Informatics is without doubt exciting and becoming more and more important. We might be a long way off a computer feeling cold but until then let’s use it to tell us more about our complicated climate.

 

[1] Monteleoni, C., Saroha, S., Schmidt, G., and Asplund, E.: Tracking Climate Models, Journal of Statistical Analysis and Data Mining, 4, 372–392, 2011.

Fasten your seat belts!

Recently I was flying back from New York to London and as soon as we took off, I heard the magical phrase: “Please keep your seatbelt fastened during the whole flight. We expect a bumpy ride”. The pilot was right – it was so bad that I couldn’t sleep, watch any movies, not to mention complete any work I had planned to do. To be honest, I was sure we would crash, so I’m happy just because I can write this blog post today.

This adventurous trip reminded me of one of seminars I attended during my first year of Mathematics of Planet Earth program. I should have paid more attention to Dr Paul Williams from the University of Reading, who claimed that due to the climate change we can expect more turbulence while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of us associate global warming with increased temperatures on the ground. However, as the above mentioned atmospheric scientist reported, it also makes the jet stream even stronger.

According to the Met Office, jet streams are ribbons of strong winds around 9 to 16 km above the Earth’s surface (so right below the tropopause). They move weather systems with the speed of up to 200 mph. The temperature difference between tropical and polar air masses is their main cause. Meteorologists care about jet streams a lot because waves and ripples formed along them can dramatically deepen Atlantic depressions while moving towards Europe.

Jet streams make flights from America to Europe faster than westbound journeys. Indeed, my flight ticket to the USA states that the journey lasted 8 hours 27 minutes while on the way back it took 7 hours 10 minutes. The pilot could have done even better, because the record on this route belongs to Boeing 777 operated by British Airways that in January 2015 landed at Heathrow after 5 hours and 16 minutes. They took advantage of the jet stream that brought heavy rainfalls and winds to the UK.

While jet streams work in favour of passengers travelling to the capital of the UK, they also make flights towards Big Apple longer. Especially because these winds are getting stronger due to the climate change causing increased differences between temperatures of troposphere and stratosphere. The stronger the jet streams become, the shorter the eastbound and the longer the westbound flights. The problem is that quicker journeys from America won’t compensate for the increased flight time against the wind. Williams estimates that each airplane flying over Atlantic will spend extra 2000 hours in the air, which means millions of gallons of jet fuel burnt. This will lead to the emission of 70 million kilograms of carbon dioxide, about as much as annual emission from 7100 average British households. It’s a vicious cycle: climate change causes more carbon dioxide burnt, which causes climate change, which causes…

The increased time spent in the air isn’t the only unfavourable effect of the climate change on aviation. Research shows that passengers should expect more turbulence incidents. Every year hundreds of people suffer injuries due to unexpected “bumps” during the flight. In 2016 videos such as the one taken on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta went viral. During this flight turbulence was so strong that 31 passengers and crew members had to seek medical help after landing in Indonesia. Such incidents make me think that my flight wasn’t as traumatic as I believed!

Jet stream is one of the common causes of the clear-air turbulence, a turbulence not associated with a cloud. This type of turbulence can be dangerous because radars aren’t able to detect it; this is why it’s usually unexpected not only by passengers, but also by pilots. And Dr Paul Williams with Dr Manoj Joshi (University of East Anglia) pointed out that we have to prepare for more such surprises as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases.

Apart from obvious discomfort and dangers, increased turbulence leads also to considerable financial problems. Williams’ report states that airlines spend millions of dollars to repair damage caused by turbulence. Moreover, sometimes airlines have to find longer routes avoiding places notorious for occurring turbulences, which leads to even more money spent and more pollutants emitted. For us, passengers, it means delays as well as longer flights.

So fasten your seat belts – just in case. And have a safe flight!

Image: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/business/12turbulence.html?_r=0

Article originally published on my personal blog.