IoT Promises a Change of Climate

Written By: Nancy Pardo
  • 9/23/2016
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In the Daintree Rainforest of Queensland, Australia, a team of researchers is busy placing hundreds of sensors beneath a dense canopy. The goal: to collect as much information as possible about the micro-climate inside.  

The 1,200 square kilometer rainforest—the oldest on the planet—is a boon for scientists. It is home to 90 percent of Australia’s bat and butterfly species and 10 percent of its bird, reptile, frog, and marsupial population. 

Researchers from nearby James Cook University are using over 600 sensors—some of which they’ve custom designed—to measure things like sap flow, soil moisture, humidity, and growth in an effort to better understand the forest environment. The sensors connect to a nearby research station and real-time data can be beamed offsite via satellite and accessed remotely.

The Daintree Rainforest project is one example of the ways advanced sensor technology and connectivity—or the Internet of Things—is changing the way we comprehend and interact with our surroundings, and it could be a powerful tool in fighting the effects of climate change.

On the other side of the world, California is experiencing a multi-year draught linked to a depleted snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Compounding the issue is California’s huge agricultural industry which produces half of the nation’s fruit, vegetables, and nuts, but which also consumes around 80 percent of the state’s water supply. 

Some innovative companies are employing IoT technology to find ways of easing the draught crisis. 

Intel, for instance, has partnered with The University of California-Davis and the World Food Center to collect and analyze vast amounts of climate data. Part of the initiative involves using IoT enabled crop sensors on farms to monitor moisture levels. 

The information collected from the sensors is combined with other data streams from weather stations, smart cars, and even iPhones to give farmers a detailed real-time portrait of the weather and micro-climates which impact their land. From the data, farmers gain more insight into when to plant and how much water to use. 

According to Intel, this technology has the potential to reduce water use by up to 50 percent. 

Silicon Valley start-up Arable reckons it can provide similar data at less cost with its new Pulsepod, a puck-like disk which watches plants grow while measuring myriad environmental conditions. 

Sensors in the Pulsepod record everything from humidity and barometric pressure to temperature and uptake of chlorophyll. A net radiometer measures light intensity and an acoustic rain gauge analyzes the size and number of rain drops. The data is tagged with a location and streamed remotely to customers.

Arable founder Adam Wolf thinks of the Pulsepod as a Fitbit for farmers (or perhaps more accurately, for their plants). 

“You get [Fitbit] because you want to track your run, then you find out it measures your resting heart rate and you start using that to get healthier. You show a wine grower data on their vines responding to the weather, and they can’t help but want to know more so they can do better,” Wolf says. 

While the IoT is playing a crucial role in smart agriculture—tightening up efficiency and reducing the environmental footprint—perhaps its biggest potential lies in our cities. 

London-based Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, thinks so.

“The city is where half the world’s population live and grow in, and over two thirds of energy are consumed there. If we’re going to build a world that can be climate safe, then change has got to happen in cities”, he says. 

And that change needs to happen sooner rather than later.

According to UN predictions, by 2050 urban populations will have added 2.5 billion people and mega-cities with more than 10 million people will be commonplace. This will place a huge strain not only on facilities and resources, but on the environment. 

Schneider Electric CEO Jean-Pascal Tricoire recently estimated electricity consumption of the world’s buildings will increase 80 percent over the next 15 years. And if we consider that buildings today are already responsible for 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, that brings significant challenges, but also massive opportunity to go greener with smart technologies. 

In most cities today heating, lighting, ventilation, air conditioning, and power circuits all run separately and have to be told when to turn on and off. But imagine a world where all these systems are both smart and connected, operating together with optimal efficiency. 

Gartner believes that over the next two to three years this will become big business. Connected devices and smart commercial buildings, it says, will be the highest users of the IoT until 2017, after which smart homes will take the lead with just over 1 billion connected things in 2018.

And we can expect residents of smart cities to be driving—or to be driven around by—smart cars, a key component in an uber efficient and clean future. 

When you consider, for instance, that in the United States 1.9 billion gallons of fuel is consumed every year by drivers sitting in traffic—that’s 186 million tons of CO2 emissions—it’s easy to see the benefit of a smart car that communicates with other cars on the road and reroutes to avoid traffic congestion. 

A recent report by the Carbon War Room paints the big picture.

It estimates that IoT technology in transport, energy, buildings, and agriculture could reduce CO2 emissions by whopping 9.1 gigatons annually and reduce global emissions by 18.6 percent. 

To put that in perspective, the UN calculates we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent from current levels in order to keep the planet from warming the catastrophic two degrees centigrade that would submerge low-lying Pacific islands along with large swathes of Bangladesh and coastal cities like New York and Miami. 

The good news: much of the technology is already there, says C40’s Mark Watts. We just need a coordinated effort and strong leadership from government and city officials.

“Cities historically have been the places where humanity has gestated the ideas that have allowed us to take leaps forward, to find new ways of living,” Watts says. “Very much at the moment, they’re the places where the political leadership is emerging, that really gives one confidence that it is possible to take on this incredible global task of preventing catastrophic climate change.”

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About the Author

Nancy Pardo

Nancy Pardo is a UK-based writer and editor who began her career as a journalist before switching to the high-tech industry where she's remained for the past 10 years. Nancy has written for several top business publications in the Middle East and United States and specializes in technology, engineering, and manufacturing trends.