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Virtual Earth Clouds for sustainability

Words by Hannah Bird
24 May 2023

As resource sustainability is challenged by the rising global population and exacerbated by the effects of climate change, interdisciplinary collaboration is more important than ever. Digital platforms are a powerful resource that encourage knowledge sharing so that those working across academia, industry and government can find solutions to the most pressing issues.

The volume of data derived from observation of the planet is vast. These data are highly complex – heterogenous, multi-sourced, multi-scalar and multi-temporal – but tools such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and network computing help create useable knowledge from these data, allowing us to test Earth models. To unify, standardise and support this approach, Mattia Santoro and colleagues at the National Research Council, Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research, Italy, propose creating a Virtual Earth Cloud that can host big data (such as geospatial datasets) and modelling platforms, inputs and outputs, as well as modelling code in different programming languages. This large knowledge environment could then be mined by a number of users, including policymakers, to inform decisions on a local and global scale.

To achieve a Virtual Earth Cloud would require a scalable digital infrastructure with the necessary processing power and storage capacity. In 2020, a proof-of-concept operation was undertaken by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and a number of associated organisations. The trial was based on an existing ecosystem monitoring model, with remote sensing input data derived from the Sentinel satellites. The operation successfully demonstrated that such a cloud system could be used to generate maps that highlight changes in land use (aquatic, vegetated or artificial) for the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy, between 2018 and 2019. The challenge now is to scale up this approach.

Innovation in the automation of monitoring and forecasting human and environmental factors, while incorporating the expertise of multi-faceted bodies, is a step forward for a more collaborative and sustainable future.

Hannah Bird


Int. J. Digit. Earth, 16(1), 43-65; doi.org/10.1080/17538947.2022.2162986 

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