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White House embarks on climate change mapping project

The government makes maps and data sets from NASA, NOAA, the US Geological Survey, and more available to the public, so that new tools can be created to help communities plan for extreme weather.

NOAA's real-time nowCoast mapping portal is available on the White House's Climate Data Initiative. NOAA

The White House wants people and communities to be prepared for extreme weather events spurred by climate change, like coastal flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires. So, it's making data sets and maps from some of the country's top agencies available to the public in it's newly launched "Climate Data Initiative."

The maps and data sets are being collected in one Web site, data.gov/climate, which is full of open government data on the country's infrastructure and geographical features, like bridges, roads, tunnels, canals, and river gauges. The information comes from agencies such as NASA, NOAA, the Department of Defense, and the US Geological Survey.

Obama administration adviser John Podesta and White House science adviser John Holdren are leading the initiative. They called on tech innovators on Wednesday to use the data sets to help build interactive maps and data-driven simulations that could help people plan for natural disasters.

According to Podesta and Holdren, extreme weather events racked up more than $110 billion in damages and killed more than 300 people in the US in 2012.

"While no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, we know that our changing climate is making many kinds of extreme events more frequent and more severe," they wrote in a White House blog post. "Rising seas threaten our coastlines. Dry regions are at higher risk of destructive wildfires. Heat waves impact health and agriculture. Heavier downpours can lead to damaging floods."

Several companies have already expressed interest in joining the initiative. Mapping software company Esri said it will partner with 12 US cities to create free and open "maps and apps" that will help local governments plan for natural disasters. And, Google said it would pitch in one petabyte of cloud storage for the data sets, along with 50 million hours of high-performance computing with its Google Earth Engine platform.

"By taking the enormous data sets regularly collected by NASA, NOAA, and other agencies and applying the ingenuity, creativity, and expertise of technologists and entrepreneurs, the Climate Data Initiative will help create easy-to-use tools for regional planners, farmers, hospitals, and businesses across the country -- and empower America's communities to prepare themselves for the future," Podesta and Holdren wrote.

Currently the Climate Data Initiative is in pilot phase, so the data sets are limited to coastal flooding and sea level rise. But over time more data and tools will become available, such as information on health risks, food supply, and energy infrastructure.