In this Earth Day photo gallery, we offer a few snapshots of how tech is helping protect the Earth, while recognizing that computing has a significant--and growing--environmental footprint.
Mapping environmental data with local help
When most people hear "green tech," they might think of energy-efficient computers or maybe solar panels. But tech--as in information technologies--opens up many new ways to protect the environment. In this Earth Day photo gallery, we offer a few snapshots of where tech is helping protect the Earth, while still recognizing that computing and electronics have a significant--and growing--environmental footprint.
One of the most dramatic ways that the Web has benefited the environment has been with visualization, which gives people a better understanding of the Earth's natural systems and the human footprint on it.
The mapping back end makes this visually appealing, but it's the Web-based social networking that makes it a more compelling application. Microsoft and the European Environment Agency have created a Web-based program that lets people get--and submit--information on environmental quality, including air and water. The site plots data from 1,000 air pollution monitoring stations in Europe and allows people to submit local observations. The goal is to expand the map to monitor several different environmental factors, including air pollution, oil spills, biodiversity, and coastal erosion.
Google Earth in December last year unveiled a prototype application for visualizing the rate of deforestation. It not only shows the trees that have been cut over of the past years but, by crunching the historical satellite data, shows where the deforestation is happening over time. In this case, the red indicates the most recent tree cutting from 1986 to 2008 in Rondonia, Brazil.
Gathering and processing data for scientists and policy makers is one of the most significant ways that tech is helping the Earth. Advances in sensors, communications, and software tools make collecting environmental data easier all the time. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is deploying a sensor network off the cost of Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, which is designed to gather data on a wide range of environmental factors, such as changes to the ocean floor and water chemistry, over many years.
A photo of workers laying the hundreds of miles of fiber optic cabling used in a coastal observation network run by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The system is set up so that equipment has long-term power supplies and constant Internet connections, which allows scientists to adjust experiments remotely. The data is available to the public as well.
Gathering data is very important to renewable energy as well. Here is a picture of a sodar (sonic detection and ranging) wind measurement system from Second Wind. The system, which is solar powered, is designed to give wind farm operators accurate data on how much wind they can expect from a location, information that can make a significant financial impact.
IBM is working with the Nature Conservancy on projects to protect river ecosystems in different parts of the world. The main goal is to gather and analyze environmental data so that scientists and policy makers can get an accurate view of the health of ecosystems. IBM is also experimenting with virtual worlds, such as Second Life, where scientists can use the immersive computing environment to simulate how different factors will impact the ecosystem.
Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, shows off how alternative computing interfaces can be used to help solve environmental problems. At a speech at Harvard last fall, Mundie showed how this natural user interface, combined with sensor-equipped wind turbines and historical wind data, could help an engineer optimize a wind farm with software. For a video clip of the wind visualization, click here.
Another example of data monitoring is this Costa Rican rain forest, where researchers have rigged an entire wireless network. Sensors at different elevations in the canopy are studying the fluctuating levels of carbon in the understory and the atmosphere.
Just like gathering and analyzing data is important for protection of natural ecosystems, the same is true in the home. A number of companies are developing in-home management systems that will give people more detailed information on electricity use. By raising the awareness of energy use, the idea is that consumers will find ways to conserve and waste less. Here is a new system from start-up eMonitor where clamps are attached to the circuits in a home by an electrician. That allows people to see, via the Web or dedicated energy display, how electricity is being used in the home with great detail.
Intel Labs in Berkeley, Calif., recently showed off a prototype air quality monitor that could one day be embedded in smartphones. The idea is to create relatively cheap monitors that get very localized data and transmit it to a central point for analysis, a system that could be more accurate than existing monitors. This device, about the size of a cell phone, can gather data on nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone, according to Intel.
Another experiment in sensing and data collection is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology project called Trash Track. The idea is to attach tags, which some day could be cheap "smart dust," that track and map where trash goes in cities. Providing the visualization of the "removal chain" will promote behavior change, such as increased recycling, according to the project's organizers.
Earth Rise is an iconic photo that still evokes the beauty and fragility of the Earth. Taken on the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve in 1968, this image was part of a live broadcast of the lunar orbit. "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth," pilot Jim Lovell said. To see NASA's images for Earth Day 2010, click here.