AI for Earth

On Tuesday, Microsoft and National Geographic announced that eleven grantees would receive support from their AI for Earth Innovation Grant – we are delighted to report that our co-director Joseph Cook is one of them. We are looking forward to communicating the progress and outcomes of the project via our Ice Alive channels! Here’s what Joe had to say about the project.


Test flights during a pilot study in Svalbard in 2017 (ph Marc latzel/Rolex)

Test flights during a pilot study in Svalbard in 2017 (ph Marc latzel/Rolex)

With over a billion people relying on glaciers for freshwater for drinking, irrigating crops and hydropower, and Arctic ice dynamics influencing global weather and exacerbating natural hazards over major population centres, melting glaciers affect us all. By feeding back into climate change, glacier loss amplifies an existential threat to humankind.

Despite this, we still have a relatively crude understanding of the complex processes driving glaciers to melt, and how this varies over space and time. I think it’s strange and problematic that we have far less understanding of ice than we do for snow. This knowledge dark spot imposes a severe limit on our ability to manage and mitigate glacier loss. Thankfully, the technology now exists to address this problem, but we are overdue in applying it.

In this new project I have teamed up with UK tech company Flyingcarpet to make use of their new decentralised drone technology that will allow us to survey glaciers at unprecedented levels of detail. I’ll develop algorithms that will look at the drone images and learn how to translate them into useful maps that show where various processes are occurring on the ice surface and then apply that skill to satellite imagery. Doing this regularly will allow us to see how glaciers are changing over time, capturing not only how much darkening and melting occurs, but what processes are causing it. Using Microsoft’s cloud computing platform will enable me to do this at scale, aiming to apply the algorithms to wide areas of the cryosphere and really monitor how Earth’s ice surfaces are changing in our overheated world.

I have also partnered with Chris Powell, an educator from the UK who will help to produce curriculum-relevant teaching materials for secondary school students that will be made open source and distributed to schools within and outside the UK. The aim will be to inspire a new generation of thinkers to work at the confluence of computer and environmental sciences.

Partnerships with large organisations like Microsoft are critical, and so is engaging new young thinkers, many of whom are “digital natives” who will eventually lead the fight against climate change and other giant issues.

I can’t wait to get stuck in to the project, and it will be a pleasure to communicate it through Ice Alive!