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There’s not much consensus of opinion regarding the likelihood of a comprehensive treaty on climate change in Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference early next month. The “Hopenhagen” campaign and other efforts are promoting the need for strong action, but there are other equally strong detractors.  In recent days there have been indications that policymakers in the United States and China will make some strong moves that would make a new treaty along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol a near-term reality. However, regardless of the outcome it will take time to turn around climate impacts and a level of adaptation will need to take place.

Even with rising awareness and actions, the global rise in carbon emissions appears to be a losing battle. The amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, and what’s coming along behind it, mean that the Earth’s climate will be warmer for the next thousand years. Tapping existing technologies, and creating new solutions, will become essential to combat coming changes. Geospatial technology contains the ideal tools for the four M’s that are building blocks for climate change adaptation– measuring, modeling, monitoring and mitigating.

Measuring

When looking at the time scale of our planet’s evolution that made it possible for our species to live and thrive, we have a very limited understanding of the changes that our land and atmosphere undergo, and even less knowledge about the repercussions of even minor variations in global temperatures. In order to gain an understanding of these changes, it’s necessary to measure changes over time as well as to research and understand past adaptations.

Geospatial technologies provide the means to survey and measure our natural systems, gathering data that allows us to represent the current reality as well as build upon that knowledge with accuracy over time. The cataloging of details about our world must take place in the context of geography in order to be able to see and understand interactions. This knowledge begins at a local scale that can then be expanded to regional and global scales. Without accurate measurements and disciplined knowledge building, we’ll continue to guess about the outcomes of our interactions with our planet and the plants and animals that share it with us.

Modeling

It’s an amazing exercise to look back through time to try and understand past changes. The fossil record provides many clues to dramatic changes, and we’re slowly building up our knowledge to be able to create visualizations of what changes took place. The next step in our understanding is to incorporate a diverse set of viewpoints into a computer model where we can manipulate different ecosystem processes in order to both gain a greater knowledge of relationships, but also to be able to better predict future ecosystem changes based upon our growing knowledge of individual variables.

Geospatial technologies provide a means to visualize, animate and model the changes taking place around us. The toolset provides the framework to integrate different data sets and layers of information about the Earth with the means to also perform powerful spatial analysis functions. Peeling back different layers of reality, and divining the relationships of different layers and variables, is becoming of increasing importance as our planet undergoes large and lasting changes.

Monitoring

Once we have a model of complex interactions, we can then begin to isolate the indicators that will alert us to change. Placing sensors to monitor individual variables helps us understand the constant flux of specific places, and in aggregate we piece together an understanding of whole ecosystems.

The geospatial framework provides a means to aggregate many different monitoring points at varying scales in order to piece together a picture and put together early-warning systems where dramatic changes impact the health of our planet and its inhabitants. Constant monitoring of earth systems is key to understanding change and gauging necessary adaptations to meet those changes.

Emission caps exist at local scales and are a likely outcome of international talks. Monitoring emissions against a baseline of prior use is the established goal and geospatial technologies provide the means for monitoring.

Mitigating

The analytical tools allow us to take a look at different variables and also help isolate specific problems so that they can be addressed. In the mitigation phase, all of the individual elements of measurement, modeling and monitoring come together to feed multidisciplinary teams that devise management approaches to address harmful changes.

Among the harmful changes that will need to be addressed with climate change are biodiversity, sea level rise, and agricultural production issues. Each of these challenges have a dedicated group of experts that aim to solve and evolve practices in order to meet them. There are greater calls for conservation, plans for adaptive coastal regions, and new types of crops in development. Each of these efforts address areas where the potential economic impacts could be extremely disruptive, thus justifying the investment in technologies as an insurance measure against catastrophic change.

Adaptation to climate change will become a necessity regardless of international action. The difficulty is developing approaches and protocols that work across areas with different land uses, weather, and other site-specific conditions. Geospatial technology provides the means to adapt to local conditions as well as to aggregate knowledge globally for coordinated responses.