Future Earth

Emerging trends and future opportunities in environmental big data

The rapid advancements in technology have facilitated the rise of big data, which is playing a crucial role in understanding environmental changes and promoting sustainability. This article explores the emerging trends in big data analytics and data science, the patterns of decline in Earth’s environment, the identification of “bright spots” and key drivers of environmental improvement, and the integration of big data with sustainability goals to create a more sustainable future for all.

Advances in Big Data Analytics and Data Science

Machine learning and artificial intelligence

The use of machine learning and artificial intelligence has become increasingly popular in analyzing and interpreting large datasets. These technologies enable scientists to identify previously unknown trends and patterns in environmental changes. As an example, AI can accelerate the adoption of Sustainable Energy Solutions.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) has allowed for more effective data collection and sharing, leading to a better understanding of the complex interactions between human activities and the environment.

Satellite Earth Observation Data Analytics

Satellite Earth Observation is a growing field due to the expansion of available satellite datasets (both commercial and open). However, due to the massive sizes of the data, traditional desktop analytic methods can not be used anymore. Hatfield (with RTEI as the project lead) developed GEOAnalytics Canada to address this need. GEOAnalytics Canada fuses together the big data approaches of co-locating compute next to the data, while employing high-throughput cloud native geospatial file formats.

Revealing Patterns of Decline in Earth’s Environment

Big data plays a crucial role in uncovering previously unknown trends in environmental decline. For example, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency used big data to model the Antarctic ice sheet’s surface mass balance, which showed that Antarctica lost 2720 ± 1390 Mg of ice between 1992 and 2017. This finding contradicted earlier projections by the IPCC, which had predicted a negative contribution to global mean sea level rise from the Antarctic ice sheet.

Identifying “Bright Spots” and Key Drivers of Environmental Improvement

Big data analysis can also reveal instances of environmental improvement or “bright spots” where policy interventions or other factors have led to positive change.

One such example is the significant increase in renewable energy usage in the United States over the past decade. Solar and wind energy production more than doubled between 2008 and 2018, due to supportive policies, technological advancements, and increased public awareness of the benefits of renewable energy sources.

Integrating Big Data with Sustainable Development Goals

Big data analysis and tools play a vital role in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by offering integrated and comprehensive data to assess progress towards these goals. The accessibility of big data analytics has been broadened through open services, making these concepts more readily available. By contributing to a better measurement of the progress of the SDGs, big data mining techniques and analytics can help identify patterns and trends in large datasets.

Leveraging big data has the potential to facilitate the SDGs by providing novel theories, data collection techniques, analysis algorithms, intelligent systems, knowledge discoveries, and ethical considerations. Additionally, big data can help highlight declines in Earth’s environment and its capacity to support humans. However, it is crucial for big data to align with sustainability goals in order to truly benefit the planet and its people.

As an example, satellite big data can play a crucial role in monitoring sustainable development goals by providing Earth observation and geospatial information, empowering organizations with big data. Remote sensing applications from satellites have become indispensable tools for sustainable development, as they enable the monitoring of air and water quality, land use mapping, development tracking, and assessing compliance with land use regulations. With the cost of satellite data decreasing significantly in recent years, Earth observation has become an attractive, innovative, and accurate approach to address Sustainable Development Goals indicators, including monitoring environmental changes and working towards achieving UN sustainable development goals. Collaborative efforts, such as those between the World Bank Group and the European Space Agency, aim to integrate Earth observation into the SDG framework.

The need to couple big data analyses with corporate and government sustainability efforts

Big data analyses and tools can support both corporate and government sustainability initiatives by offering insights into environmental impacts and pinpointing areas for improvement. As integrating sustainability into business processes becomes increasingly important, big data can aid companies in comprehending and addressing the environmental consequences of their operations.

Furthermore, big data can contribute to optimizing efficiency in the energy sector, thereby promoting business sustainability and fostering a greener future. Sustainability analytics, which encompass the use of big data to measure and examine environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) data, are expected to play a central role in business decision-making in the years to come.

By providing theoretical and empirical frameworks, big data can shed light on challenges and solutions related to leveraging it for corporate social responsibility purposes.


Big data is transforming environmental research and sustainability by revealing crucial patterns and driving improvements. To maximize its potential, it is essential to integrate big data with sustainability goals, fostering a more sustainable future for all.

Next Steps

Round Table Environmental Informatics (RTEI) is a consulting firm that helps our clients to leverage digital technologies for environmental analytics. We offer free consultations to discuss how we at RTEI can help you.

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