Hawaii maps investment priorities to tackle climate crisis using Google Cloud

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 6, 2022
Hawaii is inputting data into Google Earth Engine and Google Cloud to better understand where it should be investing resources in the fight against climate change.

Image of a Hawaii beach on a sunny day
(Image by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay )

The US State of Hawaii has built a public facing mapping tool so that the public and policymakers can better decide where to invest resources, as it seeks to combat the effects of climate change. Using data that it feeds into Google Earth Engine and Google Cloud, the Climate Resilience Platform also takes into consideration key priorities for Hawaii, such as economic opportunity and equity. 

Ed Sniffen, Deputy Director of the Highways Division at the Hawaii Department of Transportation, who also works with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was speaking recently at Google Cloud’s Sustainability Summit, where he said that there was a growing need to understand the needs of Hawaii’s islands. But also that these needs needed to be better communicated to stakeholders, in order to drive change. Sniffen said: 

In the past, resilience for Hawaii meant responding to and recovering from events. That's it. We were extremely reactive. Now we're actually a lot more proactive, making sure we plan for and absorb a lot of the impacts that come through, so we don't put our public through the negative impacts from these emergencies. 

But we also make sure we take the lessons that we learned from those emergencies and pull them back into the planning, design, construction and maintenance cycle that we always run through as states. Making every project that we do more and more resilient. 

Sniffen highlighted some of the challenges facing Hawaii as the climate crisis worsens, including landslides, wildfires, storm surges, flooding, lava flows, rock fall hazards and cliff erosions. All of these have the potential to not only impact infrastructure and systems, but also negatively impact the people living on the islands’ health, safety and economic opportunities. 

Sniffen and his team initially started building a tool that looked at preservation and resilience. He explained: 

We took those impacts and did a vulnerability study to ensure we understand how it impacts our whole system. And we did our climate adaptation action plan. Our action plan pulls all of those vulnerabilities together and makes sure we have a step-in process on what we can do to be better. 

The first portions are always inward looking, there's policies and procedures we need to unpack to make sure we can move forward in the right way. Going from reactive to proactive was tremendous in the way we started looking at everything. 

We made sure we put a viewer out there to the public so everybody could see the impacts that we're looking at, how our projects would address those impacts from a preservation perspective, and a resilience perspective moving forward. And it was excellent. We got the public and our policymakers involved to ensure that they understood what we're looking at. 

However, it also had its drawbacks. He added: 

But this model was a little bit limited. When we started looking at these areas, we looked at our exposure assessments, we looked at where we had areas of risk, and we addressed those immediately. 

We wanted to make sure that all of the areas that could fail were shored up and protected immediately. That could give us that five to 10 years of timeframe, so that we could start moving forward on the mid-range and long-range approaches. So we got out there, we mitigated the risk, we made sure that we could monitor everything. 

We set up systems that allow us to watch those areas, to ensure that we can take actions when necessary. But it was just two components of so many options that we’ve got to consider, when there are so many issues that we’ve got to consider that affect our state.

Building a better model

Sniffen explained that to better protect the islands and their people, Hawaii needed to take a broader view of what impacts would be felt and include a broader set of data. This is where the team decided that it could make use of Google Earth Engine and Google Cloud. He said: 

We wanted to look for a better model, a better way to make decisions throughout the process. And the only way we can do this is make sure we pull a lot more information into the system, information that's important to the state. 

Equity, our economy, our access to opportunities, goods and services, our ecology, our environment, all of those have to be considered. So we worked with Google to prepare this tool that allows us to layer out all of these different issues into this one, integrated visual mapping.

The tool itself has between 18 and 20 different layers of decision making, which are visually presented on a map, so that it's an easier, visual way for residents, public officials and lawmakers to see where the risks are. It is coded with green, yellow and red, which is mapped across the islands to show low to high risk areas. This is then used to guide where resources are placed. Sniffen added: 

You can dig into it even further to show not only where we put our resources but how big those resources are. That's necessary to address the issues in the system. This tool has been tremendous in allowing us to update our legislators and policymakers, our governors and mayors, to ensure that everybody understands where we need to be and where we need to be investing to address all of these issues. Not just climate change, not just sea level rise, but equity and economy.

All of those things that are important to the state are all measured here, so that we can see how our projects that were planned will impact our system in all of these different areas. It's an extremely powerful tool for us to move forward in our decision. 

In terms of advice for other governments or agencies thinking about how to address resourcing challenges when it comes to the climate crisis, Sniffen’s main recommendation is: get moving. The time is now. He said: 

I think the key takeaway for everybody is to start now. In the past people were stuck on: is the climate science right? Whose is the best? What level of sea level rise are we planning for? 

Decide on it and pick an action. Understand that your documents and your plans are all living documents as you go forward. So, for us in Hawaii, we took our best climate science that we saw, and we decided on a one metre rise. And we got moving. If we see later on that we need to adjust, we'll do it. We wanted to make sure that we’ve got tools that allow us to communicate all of the needs and the priorities to everybody that's out there. 

And then we had to make sure we took actions, short, midterm and long term actions, so that everybody could see that there's no stopping. There's no delay. You’ve just got to go. 

A grey colored placeholder image