Extreme Weather, Meet Big Data

Climate change is leading to more floods, droughts and heat waves. Researchers are making use of big data to predict what's coming next.

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Usually the problem of climate change is solely described as the increase in temperature since the beginning of the industrialization of the Northern Hemisphere. People discuss the impact of rising temperatures on the Arctic, but how does climate change affect us on a regional scale, where we actually live?

Professor Dick Peltier, global climate change researcher in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto, is very interested in the impact of climate change on water resources. In Ontario where climate is moderated to a degree by the presence of the Great Lakes, the most severe impact of the global warming process is going to be found in extreme events. For instance, we will see a dramatic increase in periods of intense precipitation like the one that flooded Toronto in 2013. This was a hugely important extreme precipitation event which in the past would have happened once every 30, 40, or 50 years. By Prof. Peltier’s calculations, the timescale for these events will start being compressed by a factor of 2, making these events appear every 25 years. This means we are looking at a future where extreme precipitation events, events of extreme warmth and drought conditions will be more frequent and more severe.

One of the biggest problems with these predictions though has to do with big data. The amount of data required to generate these models and make predictions is on the hundreds of terabytes level, which requires large storage capacity and computers with extremely fast processing speeds. Essentially, the problem of climate change projection is one that lives or dies on the basis of our ability to generate and analyse very large amounts of data.

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Richard Peltier received his doctoral degree in physics from the University of Toronto. His research is in the general area of geophysical fluid dynamics on processes that control the evolution of the atmosphere, the oceans and the solid Earth and of long timescale climate variability. In 2004 he was awarded the Vetlesen Prize which is often referred to as the Earth Science equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and in 2010 was the recipient of the Bower Award and Prize of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia for his research on “Earth Systems”. In 2012 he was awarded the Gerhard Hertzberg Canada Gold Medal and research prize, Canada’s highest award in any field of science or engineering, and in 2013 he received the Killam Prize of the Canada Council for the Arts. His current position is as University Professor of Physics in Toronto where he is the Director of the Centre for Global Change Science and Scientific Director of the SciNet high performance computing facility. See http://www.atmosp.physics.utoronto.ca/~peltier/

Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.