Earth Science Data Analysis in the Era of Big Data

Anyone with even a cursory interest in information technology cannot help but recognize that “Big Data” is one of the most fashionable catchphrases of late. From accurate voice and facial recognition, language translation, and airfare prediction and comparison, to monitoring the real-time spread of flu, Big Data techniques have been applied to many seemingly intractable problems with spectacular successes. They appear to be a rewarding way to approach many currently unsolved problems.

Few fields of research can claim a longer history with problems involving voluminous data than Earth science. The problems we are facing today with our Earth’s future are more complex and carry potentially graver consequences than the examples given above. How has our climate changed? Beside natural variations, what is causing these changes? What are the processes involved and through what mechanisms are these connected? How will they impact life as we know it? In attempts to answer these questions, we have resorted to observations and numerical simulations with ever-finer resolutions, which continue to feed the “data deluge.”

Plausibly, many Earth scientists are wondering: How will Big Data technologies benefit Earth science research? As an example from the global water cycle, one subdomain among many in Earth science, how would these technologies accelerate the analysis of decades of global precipitation to ascertain the changes in its characteristics, to validate these changes in predictive climate models, and to infer the implications of these changes to ecosystems, economies, and public health? Earth science researchers need a viable way to harness the power of Big Data technologies to analyze large volumes and varieties of data with velocity and veracity.

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