Could a ‘Digital Twin of Earth’ Help Scientists Predict the Future of Climate Change?


A "digital twin of Earth." European Space Agency

As the weather grows more severe, and its damages more expensive and fatal, current weather predictions fall short in providing reliable information on Earth’s rapidly changing systems.

That’s why a team of European scientists and ETH Zurich computer scientists are putting their heads together to “marry” the earth sciences and computer sciences to create a “digital twin of Earth.” The simulation will provide an information system for scientists and policymakers to test scenarios with different sustainable development options, ETH Zurich reported.

“If you are planning a two-metre high dike in The Netherlands, for example, I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050,” Peter Bauer, deputy director for Research at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts and co-initiator of the project Destination Earth, told ETH Zurich.

Over the past 20 years, extreme weather events have been on the rise, according to a report by the United Nations. From 2000 to 2019, 1.23 million people were killed by 7,348 major natural disasters. Twenty years before that, in comparison, there were 4,212 natural disasters, killing 1.19 million. This increase comes with a heavy price tag. Extreme natural weather cost .97 trillion in global economic losses in the past two decades, compared to the .63 trillion, two decades prior.

These numbers are expected to grow, urging researchers to design large-scale policy solutions across nations.

As part of their plans to become climate neutral by 2050, the European Union launched the Destination Earth initiative to track and plan for the future of extreme weather, monitor the health of the planet and support and inform EU environmental policy, according to a EU policy report.

In an effort to advance the “digital revolution of earth-system sciences” a team of scientists and researchers, including Bauer looked at the steady advancement of weather models since the 1940s, ETH Zurich reported. Their paper was published Monday in Nature Computational Science.

The climate problem is a complex one, requiring weather predictors to cover more than just local regions, but encompass the “complex processes of the entire Earth system,” ETH Zurich reported. Yet, while their findings are not meant to “invalidate the steady progress achieved in weather prediction over the past decades,” the authors stress the urgent need to develop a “high resolution” and “more realistic representation” of Earth’s changing atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, land surfaces and biosphere.

“We are willfully destructive,” Mami Mizutori, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction said in a statement about the UN report on natural disasters. “Disaster risk is becoming systemic with one event overlapping and influencing another in ways that are testing our resilience to the limit. The odds are being stacked against us when we fail to act on science and early warnings to invest in prevention, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.”

While the “digital twin of Earth” model is a bold step forward, it is necessary to ensure nations are prepared to handle the future of extreme weather, the authors wrote.

“The apparent effects of climate change on our environment — in particular on the frequency of occurrence and the intensity of environmental extremes — require urgent political response and much faster progress in delivering skillful predictions of future change,” the authors wrote.

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