Europe’s Earth-Sized Digital Twin Eyes Accessibility for Individual Users

February 11, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
Digital Twin of Planet Earth

The European Commission (EC)’s Destination Earth (DestinE) project has been ambitious from the get-go. Developing a digital twin of the entire planet was always going to be a huge task. However, one of the biggest challenges is how it will be made accessible to users. This question served as the focus of the project’s policy user engagement workshop, the third in an ongoing series that started off late in 2020.

Destination Earth: The Journey So Far

In introductory remarks to stakeholders, Grazyna Piesiewicz, Head of the Open Science & Digital Modelling Unit at the EC, gave an overview of the progress so far and DestinE’s endgame. The first two digital twins, relating to elements of weather-induced and geophysical extremes and climate change adaptation respectively, will be implemented over the next two years, but others will follow, integrating into a full digital twin that is projected to be finalised by the end of decade.

“The full digital twin will not only give users passive access to high-quality information, services models, trustworthy and reliable scenarios, forecasts, and visualisations, but also enable them to actively interact with the systems and to bring their own what-if scenarios,” she said. Piesiewicz suggested the platform will initially be made available to the public sector, but eventually will be opened to other users too.

The platform will be implemented in partnership with a range of organisations. They include the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

The goal of the workshop was two-pronged: To identify bottlenecks and infrastructure limitations and to begin the user-engagement process. Peter Bauer, Deputy Director of Research at ECMWF, explained how complex that can be, considering the potentially wide variety of users and their needs. A degree of uncertainty that might be good for User A might not be good for User B.

“We have to find out where these thresholds lie and how far we have to improve digital twins and the communication of uncertainty to the individual user communities,” he said.

Climate-Change Concerns

Bauer delivered a speech entitled “Conceptual Design of DestinE High-Priority Digital Twins”, one of two keynotes during the workshop. He gave an example of the possible socio-economic benefits of the platform, in the context of the June 2019 heat wave in Europe.

“[One situation that could be looked at is] the June 2019 heat wave and what that heat wave would look like under a climate that has experienced 5° warming, which we can possibly expect by 2050,” he said. “That would give you a good idea to play with, what the impact would be, what does that mean for a European economy at the time.”

The 2050 figure is pertinent as Europe strives to be the first climate-neutral continent by that time. Georg Teutsch, Scientific Managing Director at Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, gave the other keynote, entitled “Climate Science for Driving Policy User Engagement and Impact Research” and put the figure in perspective.

“Obviously policy-makers at all levels need to develop an efficient strategy to reach the net-zero 2050,” he said. “We have to realise that we are, at the present at least, not on track to stay below the 2° global warming [threshold]. Presently, some people say we are on track for well above 3°, and this is worrying.”

Teutsch nevertheless was optimistic about the benefits of DestinE. He explained a number of key promises that digital twins make, including the space and time scalability of models, zooming in and out of geographical regions at will without having to worry about borders. To show the overall project’s feasibility, he pointed to a hydrological model combining a high-resolution soil map and rain model that’s currently available on the Helmholtz site.

“The selling point is that this map is calculated basically every day for all of Europe and is available for everybody. We put it on the Internet in Germany and with 2.5 million clicks in 1.5 years, it’s the top-ranked internet site of Helmholtz. It is a function of digital twins. So, it’s not only professional modelers. It’s the entire public that uses that; and this is only one product,” he said.

Anatomy of a Digital Twin

Obviously, DestinE would be more complex due to its wide range of applications. Bauer outlined the projected platform, saying there would be two tiers. The first would be a continuous real-time mode. The second would be on-demand.

“The continuous mode [would be] available to everyone all the time [and be] more static than the on-demand mode,” he said. “The on-demand mode would then add to that in terms of zooming functions, in terms of refresh rates, in terms of added data that even users can provide or it can have a thematic focus depending on what cases or individual problems are actually looked at… flooding for example, where it could then define a whole workflow that follows up on that specific event.”

In the wrap-up portion of the workshop, Bauer listed technologies like data-collection instruments and high-performance and cloud computing as being key to the project. He said, however expensive it would be to leverage those technologies, it would be well worth it considering the stakes.

“If you consider the climate question is the most important challenge for the 21st century […] we should do everything to make best use of European technology, regardless of the cost,” he said. “The story is not just Destination Earth. Destination Earth is in an ecosystem. It must benefit from research that is invested in now and feed into digital twins in the future. So there’s an ongoing cycle of renewal, improvement, and enhancement of capabilities that needs to be set up.”

Bauer concluded by analogizing DestinE to a mobile phone. While the technology is impressive, it’s about how one makes use of it.

“It’s not just presenting a mobile phone to you eventually, but you making use of it, developing your applications within the freedom that the system gives you and then benefitting from its potential,” he said.

Piesiewicz agreed in her closing remarks to the workshop. To her, it’s critical that the user perspective remains in the foreground to ensure the project’s success.

“I absolutely fully share the concern that Destination Earth must not be another technology-driven initiative… This is really all about the users,” she said. “What that really means is not only the need of general expressions of interest from potential policy users, but also a concrete process on how to build partnerships and ensure a targeted and thus cost-effective development and operation of the digital twins.”

Feature image courtesy of Thongsuk7824 (via Shutterstock).

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