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Modeling the effects of climate change using Google Earth

The democratization of information, where the barrier to entry is often only an Internet connection, has seen some interesting ideas about how to best educate the public about complex issues such as climate change. One of the standout efforts has to be Google Earth. More and more individual scientists, research projects, and institutes are making their data available to the public in the form of Google Earth overlays, that demonstrate vividly their findings. The UK's Met Office Hadley Centre and the British Antarctic Survey are teaming up with Google Earth to better inform the public about their work on climate modeling.

It might be simplistic and oft-repeated, but the impact of information technology on science has been immense. Analysis of data that would involve lengthy calculations, statistical tables, and slide rules can now be done in a flash thanks to applications. The Internet has brought the world's libraries into every office and lab, and the power of today's computers allows for complex simulation such as modeling protein-drug interaction or analyzing huge data sets like DNA arrays or radio telescope data.

But technology has just as important a role to play in disseminating that research to its owners, the general public. Scientific R&D is publicly funded across the globe as a public good, but that means little if the people paying the bill don't understand the work or see how they might benefit from it. Google, the Internet search and advertising behemoth, has been quite active in using both its technology and its philanthropic arm in support of a number of worthy causes, and climate change is one that Google Earth is well suited to.

The Met[eorological] Office Hadley Centre has developed a KML file that dynamically demonstrates its climate modeling projections over the century, so the curious among you can see what kind of climate changes your children and grandchildren can expect. The overlay also contains points of interest that describe specific regional impacts, or explain how the data were calculated.

The British Antarctic Survey's overlay file concentrates on Antarctica, as one might expect. It contains multiple entries, along with some stunning images, showing the extent of the ice retreat on this frozen continent.

It's not just researchers that are using Google Earth in the fight against climate change. Private industry is getting in on the effort too. The public is (slowly) starting to get interested in the idea of incorporating renewable energy into existing or proposed buildings, and a Seattle-based company called 3 Tier has used Google Earth technology, in concert with an office full of PhDs, to create Firstlook, a tool for determining the best choice of renewable wind or solar for a given location.

The push towards individual businesses and homeowners installing renewable energy devices is going to grow over the next few years as the impact of climate change starts to sink in. But according to James Woolsey, former CIA Director, it makes sense on a national security level too. I had the opportunity to see Woolsey speak at the recent AAAS Science and Technology forum, where he brought attention to the frailty of the power infrastructure of the US, as outlined in a recent National Academies report. Woolsey argued that even from just a security outlook, having buildings generate their some of their own electricity (as currently happens in Germany or Denmark) is just good sense. When you take into account climate change, it starts to become an urgent priority.

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