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Is AI the answer to the Arctic's climate change problems?

October 7, 2022

ASU AI project analyzes big data to help analysts find solutions to Arctic warming

The Arctic is facing a climate crisis that’s threatening the region, its people and the rest of the world. And while solutions to this crisis are available, like many parts of the polar region, they are just out of reach. 

For years, satellites and drones have collected an avalanche of scientific data from even the most remote and unexplored areas of the Arctic. But the problem is that there is too much information, and it’s almost impossible to interpret. 

One Arizona State University professor hopes to change that. 

In August, Wenwen Li and her partners were awarded a $1 million research grant to help scientists learn to use artificial intelligence to address the pending disaster in the Arctic. Li is the principal investigator on the project. 

“The problem in the Arctic is so urgent,” said Li, a data scientist trained in computer science and earth system science at ASU. “We need to resolve it as soon as we possibly can.”

Big data 

Woman's portrait

Wenwen Li

Li, a professor in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, describes the daunting scale of relevant scientific information as “the big data” challenge.”

That may be an understatement. 

NASA’s climate change data repository is expected to have 350 petabytes of data by 2030 — the equivalent of about 10 billion single-spaced typewritten pages per day. And the satellite company MaxarTechnologies has more than 125 petabytes of global imagery. (That’s comparable to the total number of letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service in 25 years.)

And that’s just part of the problem.

Another element is that the data gathered is often incomprehensible to the scientists that need it most. 

The computers currently in use by the Arctic science community don’t have the capacity to secure and interpret data on that scale, and doing so is essential for them to solve the serious problems the Arctic is facing. 

“Data alone will not help,” said Li, who directs the Cyberinfrastructure and Computational Intelligence Lab on ASU’s Tempe campus. “We need the ability to analyze huge amounts of data and receive useful scientific information from it. This process needs the support of artificial intelligence. But many Arctic scientists do not have the skills needed to work with artificial intelligence.” 

Li and her partners will use the research grant to develop a cyber training program for Arctic scientists, and those from other disciplines, to access, study and ultimately interpret these complex volumes of data with the use of artificial intelligence. 

The project, titled “Cyber 2A: CyberTraining on AI-driven Analytics for Next Generation Arctic Scientists,” runs from March 2023 through February 2026.

“The cutting-edge methods of using artificial-intelligence-driven analytics will give Arctic scientists the opportunity to make exciting new discoveries about what is really happening in the Arctic,” Li said. 

The undertaking is a collaboration between Arizona State University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the Woodwell Climate Research Center. The teamTeam members include Patricia Solis, executive director of Knowledge Exchange for Resilience at ASU; and co-principal investigators Matthew Jones, director of informatics research and development at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Anna Liljedahl, associate scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center; and Kenton McHenry, associate director of software at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. is made up of experts in cyberinfrastructure, high-performance computing, artificial intelligence and Arctic science.

The polar problem

Since 1979, climate change and warming throughout the Arctic are taking place at a rapid rate: four times that of other parts of the world, according to a report from the Finnish Meteorological Institute. 

And there is no part of the planet untouched by this warming.

As the ice melts throughout the 177.6 trillion square-feet of the region, there is a trickle down effect. Infrastructures once securely built on permafrost, a frozen layer of stable soil, are now sinking.

The unstable infrastructure impacts everything from the economy to the ability of animals — polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, caribou — to hunt and retain their habitat.

As the ice disappears, so does its reflective powers, allowing the sun’s energy to enter and be retained by the planet. The melting ice also releases methane, a greenhouse gas, that leads to more global warming. And on and on it goes until it seems that the frozen frontier may soon be facing its final years.

Predictions in the journal Nature Climate Change say that by 2040, there will be no more ice in the Arctic. And because the Arctic plays an important role in moderating the global climate, it will have dire consequences for the rest of the planet.

Scientists, geologists and others studying these problems cannot keep up with the thaw across the global Arctic and the vast amount of unanalyzed research data associated with it. The result is that informed decisions for policymakers and quick actions are impossible to make. 

Team takes on the challenge 

That’s where Li and her team come in.

The grant will help scientists trained in AI-related analytics to accurately predict real time changes and ultimately find solutions to global warming and climate change in the Arctic. 

The free training will be in-person, online and through a monthly webinar series and is open to both scientists and educators. 

An Arctic-AI research network will be established for sharing ideas and resources. And all training materials will be deposited in the Arctic Data Center’s Learning Hub to ensure access to scientists, professionals and developers in the Arctic science and geoscience domains and beyond. 

Inclusivity is a major part of the effort. A recruitment plan is underway to create a strong and diverse STEM research workforce providing opportunities for minorities, economically disadvantaged groups, women, members of the Arctic Indiginous community and more. 

“The cybertaining training grant will empower a new generation of Arctic researchers and leaders in utilizing all the data that is being collected across the Arctic,” said Anna Liljedahl, co-principal investigator for the project from the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “Not just a handful of data processed close to a decade after it was collected, which is how much of the science is currently operating.”

And ultimately, Li and her peers hope to do their part in restoring the environmental health of a piece of the planet. 

Top photo by Andreas Weith, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News

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National book month: Good reads from the Sanford School

October 7, 2022

Sanford School faculty share books they wrote, recommend

October is National Book Month, a time to appreciate the joys of reading and writing. In the words of Stephen King, "Books are a uniquely portable magic." 

The T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University is home to avid bookworms and faculty authors. From fantasy fiction to real-world case studies and textbooks, read below to discover a few recommended favorites and faculty-written works.

Recommended books:

The House in the Cerulean Sea,” by T.J. Klune

Kimberly Jensen

Recommended by Kimberly Jensen, lecturer in family and human development and sociology

A fantasy novel delicately written for the modern world, “The House in the Cerulean Sea” is a comforting, witty novel that explores the meaning of family, love and letting go of judgments.

Lecturer Kimberly Jensen shares a few words about why it’s her all-time favorite novel:

“It's about a caseworker who is assigned to go to a place where kids with magical powers live. And he goes there with a lot of different biases, I think, and assumptions about the kind of children he's going to meet. But through the book and throughout the time that he grows in relationships, he draws a lot of connections. And so the book is a lot about being welcoming, about accepting others, about loving others. And in the end, it's actually really neat to see how he was thinking he was going to be there to help these children, but they may in fact help him and grow his heart many, many times bigger. And he ends up finding a family actually when he goes there.

"It's a really fun, heartwarming book. It helps with imagination, and it's definitely something that I recommend to students and … a way that we can apply what we're learning about people and relationships.”

Violeta,” by Isabel Allende

M. Brougham

Recommended by M. Brougham, course instructor for the Working with Military Families certificate and family and human development

Isabel Allende’s book is the story of a century — quite literally. Violeta Del Valle, the fictional main character, is a 100-year-old woman born in the Spanish flu era. The novel tells an autobiographical account of her upbringing and the experiences she went through in the context of historical events. From women’s rights to modern technology, she witnessed some of society's biggest changes between the Spanish flu and COVID-19 pandemic. 

Allende tells a tale that's mesmerizing, heartfelt and colorful, with a little humor sprinkled here and there. Instructor and book-lover M. Brougham talks about why this book is one of her favorites:

“It was amazing. It was a little slow starting, but then it so gripped me, I couldn't put it down. I read it in a day and a half.” 

 The Giver,” by Lois Lowry

Jon McQueen

Recommended by Jon McQueen, instructor of sociology

“The Giver” is a classic young-adult dystopian novel and required reading in many schools. Through the eyes of the inquisitive main character, Jonas, Lois Lowry explores the dangers of being the same as everyone else. By being perceptive and open to new experiences, Jonas discovers the unsettling secrets of the society he lives in. The more he knows, the more he wants to know.

Though this book is geared toward young adults, its layers and meanings are equally meaningful for mature audiences. Readers interested in deeper analysis can explore themes related to the meaning of color, the function of memory, mechanisms of religion and the dangers of eugenics.

Instructor Jon McQueen shares what makes this book special to him: “I've always enjoyed it because it really plays as a sociologist to what happens if we do not have deviance or we don't have things that challenge the norms. It becomes antiquated, it becomes people following and conforming to everything. So I enjoy 'The Giver' because it allows us to challenge these ideas.”

Faculty-written books:

Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality,” by Leslie Paik

Leslie Paik

Leslie Paik, sociology professor, earned the 2022 William J. Goode Book Award for her work. 

To armchair experts, poverty might seem like a simple problem to solve: just give people money, right? But those who try to get help know how complicated it can be. “Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality” opens with an account of the Hernandez family, a multi-generational household of seven sharing a small New York City apartment. Paik chronicles the messy processes the family has to work through to get help, from misinformed medical administrators to complicated paperwork.

Backed by demographic and case data from her research, Paik makes the point that if social institutions are to help people, they need to restructure their processes so they are easier to navigate.

Paik says, “I hope that readers come away with a greater understanding of poor families’ herculean efforts to provide for their children and of the expected and unexpected ways that institutions often keep them from moving forward.”

Introduction to Family Processes: Diverse Families, Common Ties,” by Denise Ann Bodman, Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet and Randal D. Day

Denise Bodman and Bethany Van Vleet

Denise Ann Bodman is a principal lecturer in family and human development and her daughter Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet is a senior lecturer in family and human development.

Those interested in family and human development will enjoy the insights provided by this book and its authors. “Introduction to Family Processes: Diverse Families, Common Ties” serves to provide an explanation of the complex workings of inner family life. The text primarily focuses on family processes and dynamics (the "inside" of families) as opposed to sociological trends, political topics or the individual psychological approach. The text further presents the research underlying these processes and effectively presents ways to increase the positive aspects of family life.

Denise Bodman expressed why this book was such a joy to write, saying, “It was a labor of love ... working with my daughter on a topic I love and bringing to life a textbook that meant so much to Randy Day (my mentor who passed, along with his wife).” 

Bayesian Psychometric Modeling,” by Roy Levy and Robert J. Mislevy

Roy Levy

Roy Levy is a professor specializing in measurement and statistical analysis.

This book is for those students who enjoy learning about probability and statistics. “Bayesian Psychometric Modeling” presents a unified Bayesian approach across traditionally separate families of psychometric models. It shows that Bayesian techniques, as alternatives to conventional approaches, offer distinct and profound advantages in achieving many goals of psychometrics. Adopting a Bayesian approach can aid in unifying seemingly disparate — and sometimes conflicting — ideas and activities in psychometrics. This book explains both how to perform psychometrics using Bayesian methods and why many of the activities in psychometrics align with Bayesian thinking.

Professor Roy Levy says, “The book was a terrific learning experience for me, and an opportunity to have a number of ideas I had been discussing with my co-author coalesce into a coherent account.”

Jennifer Moore

Communications Specialist Associate, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics