Warming Trends: Extracting Data From Pictures, Paying Attention to the ‘Twilight Zone,’ and Making Climate Change Movies With Edge

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A group of tourists in a safari caravan all hold up their cameras to snap photos of the wildlife. Chobe National Park in Botswana. Credit: Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A group of tourists in a safari caravan all hold up their cameras to snap photos of the wildlife. Chobe National Park in Botswana. Credit: Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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The New Discipline of Image Analysis 

As biological sciences have advanced in recent decades, new fields of analysis have popped up. For example, genomics, the analysis of gene sequences; proteomics, the analysis of proteins; metabolomics, the analysis of cellular molecules, and so on. 

The latest “-omics” is a sign that biology has truly arrived in the age of social media—imageomics, the analysis of images for biological data. 

Imageomics researchers use artificial intelligence to analyze pictures taken by cameras mounted in the wild, drones, historical photos digitized by museums, or even images posted to social media by tourists after snorkeling or going on a safari. 

Artificial intelligence can figure out not only what species of animal appears in a picture, but can distinguish individual animals within a species, said Tanya Berger-Wolf, principal investigator at Ohio State University’s new Imageomics Institute. The technology can recognize an animal as “not only zebra, giraffe, turtle or whale,” she said, “but Zippy the zebra, Gerry the Giraffe, Terry the turtle and Willy the whale from biometrics: stripes, spots, wrinkles, notches or even the shape of a whale’s slope or face of a primate.”


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Machines can see so much more than humans can in the pattern of a zebra’s stripes or a leopard’s spots, or other traits, Berger-Wolf said. So, researchers can use artificial intelligence to fill in their blind spots and recognize traits in animals more quickly and accurately than the human eye can see.

The ability to make such fine distinctions can help scientists understand how animal behavior is changing as the climate changes, and fill data gaps to inform policy as the biodiversity crisis threatens countless species.  

“If we can find, even at the species level, what is in those images, we’ll already be creating a much better picture of the world. But if we can identify individual animals, then we can start tracking information on when and where the image was taken,” Berger-Wolf said. “We can track animals, we can count them, we can even learn their social networks and their ranges without ever putting a satellite tag or GPS collar on an animal, without having to tranquilize them. So it’s non-invasive and it’s at scale.”


Forget Plastics, There’s a Future in Climate Change 

Despite growing up around Silicon Valley, Vivian Shen didn’t learn a thing about coding until she started studying computer science at Stanford University. 

As she went into a career in software engineering, she thought it was strange that she didn’t learn some of the basic skills her job required during the first 18 years of her life. 

That’s what inspired her to start Juni Learning, an online education platform. Juni instructors educate children on topics and skills that will help them prepare for high-demand careers in the future, including coding, robotics and now in a new course, climate change. 

Environmental jobs are expected to increase by 8 percent this decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“When we did a poll of our students and what issues they were really concerned with, or what kinds of things they were excited to learn about, climate change was one of the top ones that came up,” said Shen. “Once we started looking at some of the career growth in the coming years, this was also one of the places where we found that there were a lot of interesting new types of careers that would come up.”

The new course is an eight-week session where students will learn about climate change, cryptocurrency and cybersecurity. In the climate change session, students will learn how climate change is affecting the island nation of Kiribati, design a model attempting to save a Kiribati neighborhood from sea level rise, and then dive into a group project on a more specific aspect of climate change. 

The course is focused on group collaboration, projects instead of tests, and discovering career paths.

The main goal of the course, Shen said, is to empower students “to feel like they can make a change, and that they’ve learned something that is foundational for anything that they want to do in the future.”


Between 300 and 3,000 Feet Deep

It has been said that the ocean’s “twilight zone” has been studied less than the dark side of the moon and the surface of Mars. Yet the space between about 300 to 3,000 feet deep in the sea plays a vital role in regulating the climate and must be considered while creating climate policy, a new report says. 

The ocean twilight zone exists between the sunlit waters at the surface and the permanently dark waters of the deep sea. Here, carbon is pumped from the surface waters into the deep sea by sinking and mixing, or in the bellies of deep sea creatures that come up to the twilight zone at night to feed on carbon-rich phytoplankton. 

These processes capture an estimated 2 to 6 billion tons of carbon annually, according to the report from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which outlines the twilight zone’s role in climate change. 

The findings from the report are being communicated to world leaders at various international conferences this year, said Kilaparti Ramakrishna, senior advisor on ocean and climate policy at Woods Hole. 

Ramakrishna said he hopes to communicate to world leaders that “stabilizing the climate is priority number one. If you don’t do that, there is a potential for these critters that are sequestering so much carbon to not be able to do that.”

Climate policy often focuses on terrestrial systems, Ramakrishna said, but he hopes this report will help emphasize how important oceans are for regulating climate. According to the report, oceans contain 20 times more carbon than terrestrial ecosystems. 

“What we’re trying to say in this ocean twilight zone report is, well, this is only about 20 percent of the oceans, but you have to pay attention to this,” he said. “And more broadly, pay attention to oceans.”


Making Powerful Climate Change Movies

As filmmakers weave climate change into more movies and shows, a film consultancy company is working to make sure that the impact of these films goes beyond simply making audiences aware of the problem. 

Think-Film Impact Productions operates like a “think tank for films,” founder Danielle Turkov Wilson said, “sitting at that intersection between the film industry and high level political change.” 

Turkov Wilson consults with filmmakers to ensure that the issues they are tackling are accurate and that their films have influence once they are in the marketplace, she said. 

One example of a film on which her company consulted is “Dark Waters” in 2019 starring Mark Ruffalo, based on a true story about a lawyer who exposed a big chemical company for its role in polluting drinking water with manmade chemicals known as PFAS. Turkov Wilson said that after Ruffalo and others involved in the film shared the story in the European Union Parliament, the E.U. moved to ban PFAS.

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Another is an upcoming documentary, “The Territory,” recently picked up by National Geographic after winning two Sundance awards. It tells the story of an Indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest fighting against illegal deforestation.

“We’re really looking at how we can place this film to make waves when it comes, including Indigenous community rights to land and their voices in the way the land is used, and that they are really the guardians of the forest in that sense,” Turkov Wilson said. “We’re kind of elevating the film into those arenas to make sure that the change that’s being discussed and the debates that are happening at the political level will have raw stories from powerful filmmakers.”

The company has six films in production that are focusing on climate change, Turkov Wilson said. 

“There is definitely momentum,” she said. “People are making more and more of these stories because I think people just feel so urgent that change needs to happen and that the media can play that role.”