Breaking through the clouds

How data mining could shed light on climate change



Date: January 10, 2019
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A new strategy for getting big data out of small clouds—based on the research of three investigators including the Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Ilan Koren—was recently awarded €14 million by the European Research Council (ERC) Synergy program. Clouds play a key role in Earth’s energy balance and its water cycle, and this strategy is expected to help scientists gather information that could help shed light on the changing climate.

The approach, called Cloud Tomography, uses medically inspired CT algorithms to enable a coordinated fleet of 10 tiny satellites, each the size of a shoebox, to gather images of clouds’ external and internal 3D structures, as well as the size and concentration of water droplets within them. The scientific space mission—called CloudCT—will target small cloud fields that are often missed by remote-sensing technologies and, it is hoped, will resolve some of the unknowns surrounding climate prediction.

The project is being led by Prof. Koren, a member of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, together with Prof. Yoav Schechner of the Technion and Prof. Klaus Schilling, of Germany’s Center for Telematics in Würzburg.

After the satellites are launched into orbit, they will adopt the formation of a continuously moving and networked satellite “swarm” spread over hundreds of kilometers. The satellites will gather images from various points within cloud fields simultaneously, and transmit images to the ground, allowing scientists to derive 3D information about how such clouds influence, and respond to, changing environmental conditions.

“Remote sensing satellites study large cloud structures, but lack the resolution to observe the small clouds that temper the climate and can also be very sensitive to climate change,” says Prof. Koren. “That is why there is a critical need to measure these small clouds properly—to understand their nature and their interplay with changing environmental conditions. CloudCT can pave the way to this understanding.”  

Prof. Ilan Koren’s research is supported by the Sussman Family Center for the Study of Environmental Sciences, which he heads; the Dr. Scholl Foundation Center for Water and Climate Research, which he heads; the Bernard and Norton Wolf Family Foundation; and Scott Eric Jordan.