Mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity: Several ways AI can be used to help the environment

Advanced technology will aid conservation and climate change mitigation.

July 26, 2023, 5:15 AM

Artificial intelligence is having an increased presence in automating how human beings live their lives -- and it’s set to play a pivotal role in the herculean efforts to mitigate climate change and preserve the environment, experts say.

AI technology is already used in everyday life, from smartphone facial recognition and autocorrect to search and recommendation algorithms. As AI advances, one of its positive applications is it can be used to compile, compute and analyze data that previously would have taken humans an insurmountable amount of manpower in minutes, experts told ABC News. While there is concern for things like data protection and job replacement in other sectors, the new technology will only benefit those advocating for environmental change, the experts said.

"We're really talking about being able to take massive amounts of data from all different sources and being able to make sense of it so that a human can better perceive and comprehend trends, maybe make new discoveries," Karen Panetta, professor of computer science and dean for graduate education at Tufts University's School of Engineering, told ABC News. "Artificial intelligence helps us to explore, explain and expand our knowledge of the universe."

That processing power will make it easier for humans to move the needle on environmental actions needed to combat issues like global warming and biodiversity loss, experts said.

This is how scientists say AI will help efforts to save the environment:

Detecting permafrost melting in the Arctic

The Arctic has warmed four times faster than the rest of the earth since 1979, according to a study published in Communications Earth & Environment in 2022. While all that melting is putting Arctic species at risk and increasing the possibility of pollution and environmental disasters as shipping lanes once blocked by ice open up, it is also putting human lives at risk, researchers said.

Google has granted $5 million to the Woodwell Climate Research Center to support the development of an open-access resource that will allow residents in the Arctic to track permafrost thaw in real-time. The tracking tool will combine satellite technology with AI to provide potentially life-saving information to residents whose homes could be on the brink of collapsing with the land beneath it, Anna Liljedahl, an associate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told ABC News.

While traditional remote sensing methods applied to satellite imagery would fall short, AI technology similar to facial recognition is being used to map out ice-wedge polygons beneath the ground -- "ambiguous" features that satellites would not be able to pick up – in similar ways to how it can detect degrading glaciers, Liljedahl said.

"With permafrost, we have to look at indirect signals because it's hidden in the ground," she said.

This picture taken on May 6, 2022 shows an anti-avalanche wall that was built to protect the houses in Longyearbyen, northern Norway.
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers have found that the melting is so intense in some spots, it has essentially created a "permafrost soup," in which there is a lot of water beneath where ice once stood, increasing the risk that the topography will cave in, she said.

"It's already causing big trouble for people living in the Arctic and their houses and roads and industry as well," Liljedahl said.

Melting permafrost has been so severe in Point Lay in northwest Alaska that water lines built into the ground shifted and broke, causing the hospital to go without water for a week in 2021, Liljedahl said.

The tool will allow communities living on Arctic permafrost to plan adequately for residents' safety and enable policymakers to make better decisions on the kinds of goals that countries should implement to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, Liljedahl said. The permafrost discovery gateway is using so many large datasets that it would crash a regular computer, Liljedahl said.

"We are creating here this easy-to-use tool so they can look at their community and look at their surroundings and have access to information to say, 'This would be a good location to perhaps move to,'" Liljedahl said.

In addition, the emissions currently being tracked by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do not account for the emissions that are released due to falling Arctic permafrost, making the tracking of the melting even more critical, Liljedahl said.

Ensure the world's food supply

The agricultural industry is one of the most labor-intensive -- and most important -- systems in the world. As global temperatures continue to rise, the world's food supply is expected to be jeopardized by an increase in severe weather events such as extreme flooding, prolonged drought and heat waves and even an increase in plant pathogens that could create widespread destruction of crops, experts say.

"If you're thinking about an industry that is most impacted by climate change, agriculture is probably the leading place," Jack Cornell, director of sustainable supply for the United Soybean Board, governing body for the U.S. commodity checkoff program for soybeans, said.

AI will help to combat those stressors and make growing food more efficient while reducing its carbon footprint, Cornell told ABC News.

One of the biggest ways AI will help to reduce the harmful impacts of farming for the masses is determining when and where to place fertilizer, Cornell said.

Farmers who previously drove a tractor for four hours, laying down fertilizer as they go, will now be able to utilize auto-steer technology that leads them to the exact spot that needs the fertilizer instead, which will prevent underusing or overusing the substance.

Variable rate technology, a process in which AI will estimate how much to increase or reduce fertilizer based on computer modeling of soil and yield maps, will also allow farmers to determine how much to reduce or increase fertilizer based on the health of the soil and soil productivity, Cornell said.

"Now, you can actually be precise," Cornell said.

Spanish farmers mowing a wheat field with a red combine harvester machine of NewHolland agricultural equipment and farm machinery, during the cereal harvest period on July 5, 2023, in Horta de Sant Joan, Spain.
Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images

AI will also be able to produce real-time yield maps, which will provide immediate feedback on how to manage that field and how the yields have impacted profitability, Cornell said. Before this existed, farmers would simply put all of their seed in a wagon with little guidelines on when and where to sow, making estimated calculations based on where the seed was placed, Cornell said.

More efficient irrigation will be another benefit of AI in the agriculture industry.

The United Soybean Board is currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to put cameras on tall poles, essentially using facial recognition technology to "get a real-time data analysis of the field," which will use billions of photos being taken constantly to create a 3D image, Cornell said.

Those images will allow farmers to look at weed species and density and estimate things like cover crop growth, insect infestations and leaf curl, which happens when plants begin to dry up, Cornell said.

Farmers will be able to save water by using that imagery to determine the areas that need the most moisture, rather than simply relying on weather forecasts or spraying the entire field, he said.

Not only will they be able to irrigate fields more efficiently, but they will also be able to see in real-time which plants are responding to the irrigation.

"That would be a huge benefit to farmers," he said.

Mitigate greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain

The power of AI and the number of human hours that will be saved by the technology can also apply to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions along each step of the supply chain, Saleh ElHattab, founder of Gravity Climate, a consulting firm that helps industrial businesses and their supply chain partners manage their carbon footprint, told ABC News.

ElHattab described the emissions that live along the supply chain as "persnickety" due to the inability of the average consumer to identify and make mitigation efforts that would make a difference, such as emissions released during the manufacturing process.

Using AI to identify where emissions occur along the supply chain is important because 50 to 90% of people's emissions are outside of their own operation boundary, whether it occurs upstream or downstream of them, ElHattab said.

Unprocessed data extraction that in the past could only be done manually, such as reading data from a receipt or utility bill, will be delegated to AI. Transforming what before was a heavy consultative process to an automated one will allow employees at environmental consulting firms to do the legwork in carbon footprint savings in a "scaled-up way" and also make it cheaper, allowing smaller businesses to access their services, ElHattab said.

"It used to be that supply chains were filled with organizations that couldn't participate because of the labor it would take," he said. "The labor quotient has plummeted thanks to AI as of late."

Paper mills spew smoke in Muzaffarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, India, Nov. 20, 2022.
Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

With carbon accounting, there are several efficiencies that have not yet displayed the trickle-down effect of footprint reduction, ElHattab said. Historically, humans would need to sift through several variables of datasets to figure out why.

"You've certainly seen accountants have stacks of papers that they're constantly toiling through to pull out the relevant fields and populate different systems," he said. "That's no different from the world of carbon accounting."

Another important way AI will help to carbon correct the supply chain is by optimizing operations at manufacturing facilities, ElHattab said. Using optimizations on how manufacturing companies are running their existing equipment could save between 20% and 30% in utility cost and usage alone, he said.

"That type of insight is one that AI has led the way on," ElHattab said, adding that these types of technologies are starting to "boom."

Preserve the world's oceans

Humans know more about outer space than the oceans on Earth -- and AI will help to fill in those gaps while preserving the health of the seas, Panetta said.

One of the ways is by allowing humans to see underwater with no distortion or loss of color with robots that feature an image enhancement algorithm that Panetta created.

Humans will be able to use that technology for anything from search and rescue missions to studying new and existing marine species, she said.

If aquaculture and using things like kelp and seaweed as biofuel gains traction amid the world's aim to utilize green energy, so will the technologies needed to keep underwater farms alive, Panetta said.

A general view shows a coral reef in Key West, Florida, on July 16, 2023.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

In the same vein, the continued installation of communications pipelines or offshore wind farms -- which in the past have been controversial due to the unknowns on how construction is affecting sensitive ecosystems such as coral beds -- will require AI utilization more in the future as companies determine where the most optimal spots to construct the massive structures will be, Panetta added. It's huge savings for businesses and a potential lifeline to the environment, she said.

"When we lay these pipelines, or we do surveys of these places, we want to see the health of the ocean and see what we're affecting," she said.

AI can also be used to track marine life. Once whales and sharks are tagged, the camera attached to them will now be able to capture their surroundings and display them in vibrant, clear pictures. It will also help protect them from human interference.

Humans will be able to track their migrations and learn more about their environment, allowing us to interfere less -- especially with fishing and aquaculture, she said.