Mapping the way to climate resilience
“We just know it’s the right thing to do for our customers and—I say this from years of doing risk management— it’s good, basic risk management,” says Shannon Carroll, director of global environmental sustainability at AT&T. “If all indications are that something is going to happen in the future, it’s our responsibility to be prepared for that.”
Globally, leaders from government, business, and academia see the urgency. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021 names extreme weather due to climate change and human-driven environmental damage among the most pressing risks of the next decade. When citing risks with the highest impact, those surveyed listed climate action failure and other environmental risks second only to infectious diseases.
AT&T is taking action with its Climate Resilience Project, using spatial data analysis and location information to tackle the complex problem of how increasingly powerful storms could affect infrastructure such as cell towers and the telecom’s ability to deliver service to its customers. “Spatial analysis is this way of going beyond what we visually see,” explains Lauren Bennett, head of spatial analysis and data science at Esri, a geographic information systems (GIS) company. “It’s going beyond a data-driven approach and much more into a knowledge-driven approach.”
To better understand its vulnerability, AT&T collaborated with the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Their joint mission was to identify risks to the company’s infrastructure and real estate based on historical weather events and predictive modeling. They fed company asset data and climate data from the lab into a GIS, which can layer volumes of disparate information in the context of location for visualization and analysis. The output of all this multifaceted information is referred to as location intelligence.
“When we talk about GIS,” says Jay Theodore, chief technology officer at Esri, “we are able to expand to the scale of the world for solving global problems but also shrink down and bring a magnifying glass to something in the immediate vicinity and study that, too.”
AT&T plans for the future today
“Everybody needs a plan for climate change,” says Carroll. AT&T’s plan centers on advanced spatial analytics to see how destructive storms and other climate-change-driven phenomena across the United States will affect nearby infrastructure. Ultimately, businesses will be able to forecast where, and to what degree, climate events might affect customers. AT&T understands that without a resilient network, the broadband connectivity required to close the digital divide is also at risk. “Our number one priority is making sure we have a network that’s going to service our customers 20, 30 years from now,” Carroll says.
The foundation of AT&T’s GIS is a map identifying the locations of the company’s offices and stores, cell towers and servers, storage facilities, underground and above-ground wires and conduits, and other infrastructure. Layered on top of the map is the climate change data analyses that AT&T commissioned from Argonne. Together, Argonne and AT&T created the Climate Change Analysis Tool, which can predict the frequency, extent, and location of flooding, high-speed winds, wildfires, and drought about 30 years into the future.
Location intelligence visualizes climate-related risks to AT&T’s infrastructure, based on contextual information and science-actuated knowledge. Without the GIS’s spatial correlation of Argonne’s climate analyses to the corporate map, AT&T would have a jumble of difficult-to-interpret data, arrayed in separate spreadsheets and databases—in all, more than 500 billion pages of text. As Theodore explains, “If you want the complete picture, if you want to make the right decisions, you have to bring in location.”
For example, as a pilot, the AT&T and Argonne team used their Climate Change Analysis Tool to look at regions in the US Southeast susceptible to floods and high winds. “Getting some of the best available climate data from Argonne National Lab and then overlaying that into a GIS so you can visualize it—that in and of itself is very exciting,” Carroll says. With an exceptional degree of detail, executives could determine how infrastructure in four states—Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida—could be affected by, for example, a 50-year storm event in the coming decades. “Not every [asset] is at the same risk, even if they’re close together,” Carroll points out. This assessment can prove helpful for more precise planning—for example, the allocation of resources to potentially relocate, remodel, or reinforce infrastructure against potential damage.
One key tenet of the telecom’s sustainability effort involves a tactic many companies avoid—sharing data. AT&T teams working on climate risk analysis decided to make their data available to everyone. They publicized access through press releases and social media channels, encouraging people and groups to download it. “When it comes to building climate resilience, you don’t compete. This is where you collaborate,” Carroll says. “We encourage everybody to use this data because it doesn’t do us any good if we’re resilient but the rest of our value chain is not.”
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The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics
What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.
There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.
+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.
+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.
The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects
People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.
Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness.
The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting.
But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)