July 3, 2017 – Beginning July 1, on its second anniversary, a University of Colorado Boulder program called Earth Lab became part of CIRES, a longstanding leader in Earth system research. Earth Lab scientists and staff are tackling a critical challenge in Earth science research at CIRES: dealing with increasingly enormous environmental datasets.
That makes the roughly 25-person Earth Lab a great fit with CIRES, where world-renowned researchers are tackling key questions about environmental changes, often relying on unwieldy datasets from diverse disciplines of science.
“It’s an important partnership,” said Jennifer Balch, Director of Earth Lab, Assistant Professor of Geography at CU Boulder, and now a CIRES research faculty member. “By bridging interdisciplinary research collaborations, we can better understand global environmental change, and find opportunities sitting in the data that we’ve already collected about our planet.”
The idea for Earth Lab was sparked from a 2013 White House initiative that inspired CU Boulder. Then-president Barack Obama proposed a nationwide “Grand Challenge” to address some of society’s greatest challenges with science. “We need to keep investing in the most prominent, promising solutions to our toughest problems,” Obama said.
In response, CU Boulder created a campus-wide competitive Grand Challenge initiative called “Our Space. Our Future.” to fast-track research and discovery in Earth and Space science. Earth Lab, proposed by Balch, was one of the winners.
In the last decade, the surge of data available from ground, drone, and satellite has created an overwhelming flood of information: so much that researchers have been unable to use it all. By streamlining big data analysis and breaking down barriers to accessing data that are critical to CIRES’ and other researchers’ work, Earth Lab can accelerate scientific discovery.
“Earth Lab lets researchers focus on their science, rather than spending countless hours fussing with data,” said Emily CoBabe-Ammann, Director of Strategic Projects in CU Boulder’s Research & Innovation Office (RIO). “For the first time, we have the opportunity to stitch different data components and sources together, and this allows us to ask questions that we would not have been able to ask before.”
For example, CIRES fellow Carol Wessman is working with Earth Lab to integrate satellite- and ground-collected data with new, innovative drone-captured data to take a deeper look at forest health, including tree mortality caused by fire, drought, and insect infestation.
Projects like this comprise one of the three major pillars that make up EathLab:
Analytics Hub: Computer scientists, statisticians, earth scientists, and aerospace engineers break down barriers in data acquisition, analysis, and visualization—to make data more usable and accessible.
Earth Analytics Education: Earth Lab is also training the next generation of Earth scientists through online learning materials, an internship program, and a professional graduate certificate in Earth Data Analytics.
Science Projects: By working with individual scientists, Earth Lab addresses critical questions in Earth science, combining data collected at various scales in research projects in topics such as fire, permafrost, erosion, and risk and decision making.
“We are excited to have Earth Lab at CIRES,” said CIRES Director Waleed Abdalati. “Their innovative approach to analyzing Earth information adds a new an important dimension to our environmental research portfolio.”
CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.