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UMBC is leading a new institute using data science to understand climate change

UMBC professor Maryam Rahnemoonfar is leading work to analyze data on melting polar ice, and what it means for sea-level rise. Called iHARP, the institute received a $13 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Making sense of melting sea ice. (Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
Ice caps melting. Sea levels rising. It’s a cause-and-effect that shows how the Earth is warming, leaving humans at risk of more flooding and intense coastal storms.

Given the increasing volume of warnings from scientists, lots of data is being collected to document the loss of ice in the world’s polar regions. But tools are needed to make sense of it, and help to foster a deeper understanding of how it affects climate.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers led by University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) AI and data science professor Maryam Rahnemoonfar will work to analyze that data, with an eye toward preparing communities for the hazards to come.

Rahnemoonfar is set to launch and direct the NSF Institute for Harnessing Data and Model Revolution in the Polar Regions, or iHARP. The institute was awarded a five-year, $13 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Harnessing the Data Revolution to do so.

Focusing on particular on the polar regions, the institute’s work is setting out to provide tools and algorithms for use by climate scientists as they make sense of a changing planet. Rahnemoonfar told that iHARP will apply advanced techniques such as data science, AI and machine learning to help make sense of the oceans of data being collected. There is atmospheric data from satellites, near-surface and from the surface in the Arctic and Antarctic that measures the thickness of the ice, as well as snow melt. Analysis tools can help link this disparate data about ice loss together, and with reducing uncertainty in the models for projecting sea level rise.

It’s the kind of problem we hear about in business all the time: There’s lots of data coming in from different places, but how to make sense of it all?

Given that it’s a world crisis we’re talking about in this case, iHARP is a big effort that involves institutions from beyond Baltimore, and the business community, as well. UMBC researchers and students will be joined in the work by experts from University of Colorado Boulder, Dartmouth College, University of Minnesota, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Bowie State University, Amherst College, University of Texas at Austin, NASA Universities Space Research Association, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NVIDIA, IBM and Amazon. There are data scientists on the team, but there are also scientists in multiple domains, as well as mathematicians.

About 75 people are already involved, and Rahnemoonfar said they are seeking more collaborators to “join our institute so we can solve this big problem together.”

It shows higher education putting institutional resources to advance technology that can address climate change, and is the latest sign that’s playing out in Baltimore. Earlier this year, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University created an institute focused on creating sustainable energy tech with a $20 million gift from the estate of entrepreneur Ralph S. O’Connor.

Companies: University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) / National Science Foundation

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