The in­se­cu­rity mar­ket

An uncer­tain fu­ture makes pre­dict­ing it big business says

Geographical - - WORLD­WATCH - Marco Ma­grini

Fu­gaku is the fastest su­per­com­puter on the planet. Re­cently built by Ja­panese com­pany Fu­jitsu, it’s ca­pa­ble of 2.6 quadrillio­n oper­a­tions per sec­ond. This stag­ger­ing pro­cess­ing power is now at the ser­vice of the Ja­panese Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Re­search In­sti­tute to help weather and cli­mate fore­cast­ing and, above all, dis­as­ter warn­ing. Ex­treme weather, largely fu­elled by cli­mate change, is an in­creas­ing li­a­bil­ity to the world’s econ­omy. More than ever, coun­tries and com­pa­nies need ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tions in or­der to pro­tect their peo­ple and their oper­a­tions from dis­as­ter. This is why weather fore­cast­ing has grown into an in­dus­try that, in 2015, was es­ti­mated at US$56 bil­lion, and is cer­tainly big­ger to­day.

Last year, as typhoon Hag­ibis was ap­proach­ing its shores, Ja­pan is­sued a spe­cial warn­ing, sus­pended the Shinkansen trains and shut down su­per­mar­kets well in time. As ex­treme events be­come the new nor­mal, truck­ing com­pa­nies, com­mod­ity traders and util­ity providers – not to men­tion in­sur­ance com­pa­nies – need re­li­able hour-by-hour fore­casts and analysis, just to save money. Weather ser­vices used to be run by gov­ern­ments, but now a grow­ing num­ber of star­tups are at­tracted to a boom­ing mar­ket: the mar­ket of cli­mate in­se­cu­rity.

In late Au­gust, hur­ri­cane Laura made land­fall at

150 mph in al­most the ex­act lo­ca­tion in Louisiana pre­dicted 3.5 days ear­lier. Such a re­sult would have been un­think­able a few decades ago, yet it’s pre­cisely what is needed as we move for­ward into a more uncer­tain world. A con­stant in­crease in pro­cess­ing power, cou­pled with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learning and cloud­based sys­tems are an­tic­i­pat­ing the near fu­ture. Not only do they tell an air­line to resched­ule flights to avoid storms, or sug­gest to a farmer when to ir­ri­gate crops, they also in­form mil­lions of peo­ple when to evac­u­ate from a hur­ri­cane’s path, or sim­ply when it’s time to grab an um­brella.

How­ever, the very peo­ple who rely on their smart­phone’s weather apps of­ten con­fuse me­te­o­rol­ogy with cli­ma­tol­ogy. The for­mer tries to pre­dict at­mo­spheric be­hav­iour in the very short term, the lat­ter in the very long term (in­clud­ing other fac­tors, such as the Sun’s ra­di­a­tion). It’s strange that coun­tries, com­pa­nies and fam­i­lies promptly re­act to the flash warn­ings of me­te­o­rol­o­gists, but still fail to act in the face of the dire pre­dic­tions of cli­ma­tol­o­gists. They both use the same pro­cess­ing power, the same ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and es­sen­tially the same sci­ence.

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