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Opinion: As Climate Change Looms, IT Has Many Parts to Play

With no end in sight to extreme weather patterns that could have implications for data centers and even cybersecurity, the time is ripe for IT leaders to plan for energy efficiency and resilience.

a city skyline in the background with a grass field turning into dry, cracked land in the foreground
As we approach the end of 2022, one of the prevailing stories has been the weather. As scientists predicted, the effects of climate change can be seen in our historic weather patterns and events. The western United States has continued to experience a megadrought, now in its 22nd year. Unprecedented heat waves hovered over Europe and China. Heavy rain and floods drenched other parts of the United States, in particular Yellowstone National Park. Hurricanes Ian and Nicole slammed into Florida, South Carolina, and moved up the eastern coastline. Hurricane Ian’s winds were clocked at 150 miles per hour, making it tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. Each of these weather incidents caused billions of dollars in personal, commercial and governmental damage. We know climate change will affect information technology in many direct and less obvious ways, as weather events can have profound impacts on IT services, infrastructure and planning across the board — in education, government and business.

Information technology plays a central role in forecasting weather. Technology aids forecasting by providing information on transportation safety, agriculture and utilities before, during and after weather events. Supercomputers allow the National Weather Service to predict ever-changing weather patterns with enough confidence to issue watches and warnings. High-performance computing (HPC) allows agencies to utilize multiple supercomputers to process extremely complex calculations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s computer, called Hera, was listed in 2020 by as the 88th top supercomputer in the world, based on a Cray CS500 with a compute capacity of 45 million hours per month with 63,840 cores and a total scratch disk capacity of 18.5 Petabytes. One Petabyte is the equivalent of 1,000 Terabytes.

Once dangerous weather is forecast and tracked, technology is critical to our ability to assess damage and mobilize any necessary resources. As Ntirety CEO Emil Sayegh said in a contributed piece for Forbes in April 2022, “Almost every organization should prepare to leverage principles including offsite strategies, resiliency, security considerations, geographic strategy, and cloud technology in order to step up to this modern-day challenge.”

On the international stage, the United Nations is taking an active role in promoting policies which embrace technology’s role in fighting climate change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn last summer, Technology Executive Committee chair Ambrosio Yobanolo de Real of Chile emphasized, “Approaches that integrate both technology and nature-based solutions offer potential to be more robust and cost-effective than one solution alone. These solutions include early warning systems and hybrid approaches to reduce the impacts of storm surges and sea-level rise.”

Beyond the dangers of storms, flooding and too much precipitation, tech companies have become increasingly concerned about the lack of available water due to extreme drought and its impact on the demands of IT infrastructure. To ensure a data center’s processing can operate efficiently, server infrastructures must be adequately cooled. Tech writer Austin Miller explained in a February 2022 blog post for BMC about data-center cooling, “The cooling system essentially draws heat from data center equipment and its surrounding environment. Cool air or fluids replace the heat to reduce the temperature of the hardware.”

As the world’s appetite for more and faster data increases, so does the need for more data centers. The problem is, data centers require massive amounts of water to cool. As Nikitha Sattiraju wrote for Time magazine in April 2020, “Alphabet’s Google is building more data centers across the U.S. to power online searches, web advertising and cloud services. The company has boasted for years that these huge computer-filled warehouses are energy efficient and environmentally friendly … These facilities use billions of gallons of water, sometimes in dry areas that are struggling to conserve this limited public resource.” According to public documents, in 2019 Google was guaranteed “1 million gallons a day to cool the data center, and up to 4 million gallons a day if it hits project milestones.”

Corporate America is very aware of the dangers and costs of a limited water supply due to climate change. Google is now turning to artificial intelligence to find ways to create energy savings in cooling data centers around the world. Microsoft is looking at boiling liquids to cool their data centers. Microsoft’s John Roach wrote for the company’s website last year, “Unlike water, the fluid inside the couch-shaped tank is harmless to electronic equipment and engineered to boil at 122 degrees Fahrenheit, 90 degrees lower than the boiling point of water. The boiling effect, which is generated by the work the servers are doing, carries heat away from laboring computer processors. The low-temperature boil enables the servers to operate continuously at full power without risk of failure due to overheating.”

Amazon is another corporate example of finding ways to reduce water consumption for data centers. The company created a water stewardship program with a goal of “being water positive by 2030 and making more water available to the communities where we operate.”

In addition to the challenges of climate and the need for technology innovation, there is an overarching need to have solid cybersecurity infrastructure and policies. Similar to historic weather events, cyber attacks require international monitoring and cooperation, according to Algirde Pipikaite and Haiyan Song in their 2019 article for Scientific American, “What Do Hurricanes and Cybersecurity Have in Common?” As they point out, cyber attacks can happen out of nowhere, like extreme weather, and “information sharing is everyone’s responsibility.”

As we predict, monitor and respond to extreme weather, we need to ensure our infrastructure and data is protected from nefarious bad actors. In a February blog post for AT&T, Bernard Brode wrote, “Business leaders and IT professionals should include climate change in their risk assessment protocols and procedures” such as backup plans to limit the potential disruption of services. Brode acknowledged, “proactive cybersecurity won’t reverse the effects of climate change. However, it will help reduce the financial and economic impact of global warming on businesses, individuals, and society at large.”

Certainly, climate change and IT will be closely tied together in the future, in the sense that technology can help us assess and monitor current and future trends and provide prudent analysis to reassess our conclusions more effectively. When severe weather is imminent, technology can provide early warnings and emergency notifications based upon past and current data. And with proper cybersecurity protocols, we can ensure our data is accurate and trustworthy. As author John Naisbitt once said, “The most reliable way to forecast the future is to try to understand the present.” With that guidance, now may be an excellent time to innovate with technology to carefully guide us through climate change.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.