Wednesday, 10 November 2021 / Published in Blog

Space Agency Tackles Climate Change with Ambitious Digital Twin Project

Digital twins are back in the spotlight as the European Space Agency gave an update on the project ahead of the COP26 Glasgow, the United Nations’ climate change conference

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack along with partners from across the globe speak at the OP26 in Glasgow, Scotland on 4 November 2021. (Photo credit: USDA/ Flickr)

Digital twins are back in the spotlight as policymakers from around the world gather at COP26, the UN conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to hash out solutions to combat climate change.

Last week, the National Digital Twin programme (NDTp) and partners on the Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDo) debuted a short film and interactive app to highlight how interconnected digital twins offer cities better protection against climate change vs. their non-connected counterparts.  

“We want the film and app to connect with everyone, from asset owners to the public, and remind them that lives are at stake. We need to build more resilience into our systems, and that takes collaboration,” said Sarah Hayes, the project’s lead and author of the report Data for the Public Good, in a statement.

The idea is that digital twins allow for just about anyone to interact with a virtual replica of a living or non-living asset that’s fed with real-time data from an array of sensors. In the case of NDTp and CReDo, those assets are cities.

But for other agencies and companies, their ambitions are much bigger in scale.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been chipping away at a digital twin of Earth since the summer of 2021 as part of Destination Earth, or as they prefer to call it, “DestinE”.

It’s an ambitious project in scope as it wants to create a digital crystal ball to help users predict major environmental damage and disasters before they happen.

“It will focus on the effects of climate change, water and marine environments, polar areas, cryosphere, biodiversity or extreme weather events, together with possible adaptation and mitigation strategies,” the agency wrote in a September update. “It will help to predict major environmental degradation and disasters with unprecedented fidelity and reliability.”

The agency goes on to break down the focus of the twin in a few key areas: the Antarctic, oceans, forests. The program also touches on other topics through smaller-scale digital twins like climate change through monitoring drought in Africa and hydrology in Northern Italy.

“We have used the Antarctic twin to track the whereabouts of melt water on and under the ice sheet, and to explore how fringing ice shelves melt under various hydrology scenarios,” said Noel Gourmelen, a researcher with the University of Edinburgh whose team built the digital twin of Antarctica.

Also jumping on the digital twin game in the name of climate change is computer hardware company Nvidia, which recently announced its ambitions at the 2021 GPU Technology Conference.

“We will build a digital twin to simulate and predict climate change,” said Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang, according to VentureBeat. “This new supercomputer will be E2, Earth 2, the digital twin of Earth, running Modulus-created AI physics at a million times the speed in the Omniverse.”

The Omniverse is Nvidia’s platform allowing engineers to build the foundations for their metaverse, which allows for a connected network of virtual worlds.

Details are still scarce but Huang says his company plans to rely on its strengths to make it happen.

Details are still scarce but Huang says his company plans to rely on its strengths to make it happen.

“To develop strategies to mitigate and adapt is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing society today,” said Huang. “The combination of accelerated computing, physics ML, and giant computer systems can give us a million times leap — and give us a shot.”

For Roy Damgrave, an assistant professor of design, production and management at the University of Twente, the push towards digital twins represents a shift in attitudes from companies unheard of decades ago.

“I must say — and it’s solely because I’m coming from the engineering perspective — the companies we talk to are more focused on waste, capturing energy consumption, and carbon footprint. That information is a visible layer in a twin. I think five or 10 years ago, they would have never asked for that, Damgrave told 3D CityScapes.

Damgrave, who is more interested in the act of digital twinning vs. building digital twins, says the potential to fight against climate change ultimately lies in the power to shape the world how society needs it to be instead of how things currently are.

“If we’re not connecting the twin to reality then we bring up some simulations and look at how the world should or could be, and how it can be at certain moments.”

How would you like to see digital twinning used to fight climate change? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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