Digital twins of our planet have a critical part to play in driving sustainable practices and improving climate policy.
The concept of digital twins has been around for years, and many industries regularly use virtual replicas of items or systems to realistically simulate the outcomes of different scenarios. An example would be using the digital twin of a wind turbine to explore its likely performance in different weather conditions.
What we’re working on now is a giant step forward. We’re scaling up that principle to create a digital twin of our entire planet, to help us better understand and predict the impacts of changing conditions. It’s a significant challenge though, as the level of complexity involved is huge. It involves finding a way to meld together lots of different types of data that don’t naturally sit together, and our key task is to perform delicate co-ordination to get them to talk to each other so we can create a coherent picture.
Digital Twin Earths have immense potential when it comes to monitoring and forecasting the effects of human activity on our planet. And, because they can help us predict the impact we’re having on the environment, they are a critical sustainability tool. The power of being able to try things out and see their likely effect will be transformative.
So where are we on this journey?
High stakes, big challenges
My area of expertise lies in helping to build one of six potential Digital Twin Earths funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). These precursor projects focus on exploring climate, hydrology, oceans, forests, the Antarctic and our project – food systems.
Our project takes advantage of CGI’s experience on data management, curation and exploitation, particularly in geospatial and Space data. Our team, including our own scientists, works closely with the academic community and end-users to bring cutting edge AI, visualization, and cloud technologies to solve these types of challenge involving large, complex data sets and models.
We’ve found that these complex projects have a horizontal component and vertical component, needing a horizontal infrastructure to support the vertical science. Here at CGI, we’ve done a lot of work to understand what the architecture has to deliver if it’s to be used as a shared building block. How do we get these data sets to talk to each other? How do we visualise it? How do we process it? How do we make it scalable to create a digital twin? We have to solve these issues before we can achieve a fully functional Digital Twin Earth that can fulfil its aim.
Building a digital twin for food systems
In our case, our infrastructure had to be able to successfully integrate two data sets, to show the impact of extreme rainfall on global crop models. I’m delighted to say our project has been making good progress at illustrating how this type of weather could realistically affect crops, crop production and, by extension, food prices.
In an ideal world, this digital twin would be made accessible to farmers, so they could see when extreme weather events were going to happen. During these turbulent periods, they could avoid wasting fertilisers on their soil, to reduce toxic runoff into streams and lakes and to improve the productivity of their crops. Similarly, if the model predicted an event which will devastate an area of crops, we could inform policy holders to come and help protect the area and mitigate the subsequent damages.
Future frontiers for digital twins of earth
The potential of accurate digital twins in the fight against climate change is clear. We would be able to visualise events and identify what regions would be affected, investigate which manmade actions were having an effect, and explore preventative measures.
But there’s more. These powerful insights could then inform global policies for food production, the climate and sustainability to drive environmentally friendly practices and conservation. Plus, we could incorporate socioeconomic factors alongside physical measures, to show how events might adversely affect the global economy.
I see two big challenges on the horizon for the ESA Digital Twin Earth vision. Firstly, we have to find a way to get the six separate precursor projects to talk to each other through boundary conditions to form the ecosystem of Digital Twin Earths we’re aiming for. And secondly, we have to get people using the data we produce. A big part of this will be building confidence in our data’s validity and traceability, so nations and industries will be eager to incorporate it into their strategies.
It’s exciting to be part of creating a sustainable future for the Earth, and I look forward to updating you on our progress as it happens. In the meantime, if you would like to find out how space-based data and data processing can help drive your business’s sustainable practices, please get in touch. Alternatively, take a look at our ‘Space for Sustainability’ brochure for more information.