Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Microsoft models the world ecosystem

MicrosoftAccording to Microsoft’s Environmental Sustainability blog, a team of researchers at Microsoft Research are building a computer model that could enhance our understanding of the environment and lead to policy decisions that better support conservation and biodiversity.

The team has published an article in Nature urging other scientists to get on board and try to do the same (unfortunately you have to subscribe to read the article).

The project emerged from Microsoft’s Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group (CEES) at Microsoft Research in Cambridge (UK) after they started working with the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC). According to Drew Purves, head of the Group, they realised that what was really needed was a general ecosystem model (GEM) – something that hasn’t been possible to date because of the vast scale involved.

The GEM is a mathematical model that mimics the physics and chemistry of the planet’s land, ocean and atmosphere. Such models are used to better understand how the earth’s climate systems work and to make predictions about climate change.

Microsoft Research and the UNEP-WCMC have spent the past two years developing a prototype GEM, called the Madingley Model, built on top of a global carbon lifecycle model that the group just finished. Now they are setting out to model all animal life too: herbivores, omnivores and carnivores, of all sizes, on land and in the sea.

One challenge is that while some of the data needed to create an effective GEM has already been collected and is stored away in research institutions, more is needed. A new major data-gathering program would be expensive, so supporters of GEMs are calling on governments around the world to support programs that manage large-scale collection of ecological and climate data.

The ultimate goal of the Madingley Model is not to develop a perfect model but to trigger the creation of a set of competing models. The hope is that other ecologists will suggest improvements to, adaptations of, or complete replacements for the Model.


Review:  This must be the ultimate green IT project, pretty much mapping the ecology of the world. It’s highly ambitious, but then so was forecasting weather to the extent that we can do it now. The model will be hard, but the crux is getting enough data, hence Microsoft’s ‘crie to coeur’ for others to get involved.

The project may be just too big to get any real insight, at least for some time yet (it sounds more like Deep Throat’s quest for the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But you can learn an awful lot just by trying.

© The Green IT Review

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