Google’s New Weather and Climate Tools, Ranked

Google’s New Weather and Climate Tools, Ranked

Alphabet’s Google is setting itself up to be a one-stop shop for all sorts of climate- and sustainability-related decisions. The company announced a series of updates this week that aim to help users make more informed choices, whether they’re about buying an electric vehicle or preparing for extreme weather.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said in a video message that “fighting climate change is humanity’s next big moonshot. And as with any moonshot, we’re going to have to answer some big questions to get there.”

None of these products is going to save us from runaway global warming—for that, we need to get away from fossil fuels as soon as possible—but there are some winners here.

1. Google’s Flood Hub expansion

Let’s start with the best update to come out of Google this week—the expansion of its Flood Hub tool in Canada and the U.S., areas that saw several major deluge events this year, including deadly floods in California and New England.

The updated hub covers 800 locations by rivers where more than 12 million people live. It uses AI and geospatial analysis to provide real-time flooding information on the hub platform and in Google Search. The tool originally launched in 2018 and has provided flooding forecasts up to a week in advance for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

And this tool has saved lives. It was critical in South America this August: When heavy rains created flooding conditions in Chile, people in the affected areas received an alert on their phones several days beforehand thanks to Flood Hub, Fast Company reported. We stan.

2. Tracking wildfires and predicting where they’ll spread

Another great update: Google is expanding its wildfire tracker. North America just exited its long, hot, smoky summer, as Canadian wildfire smoke tanked air quality throughout the continent. The climate crisis seems hell-bent on creating fiery conditions across the globe, so access to timely warning and tracking has become a matter of life or death.

“To help map fire boundaries, our wildfire boundary tracker uses AI and satellite imagery to map large fires in close to real-time and updates every 15 minutes,” Google said.

The company is working with the U.S. Forest Service to roll out the largest update to its wildfire models in 50 years to better train firefighters. The tool is available on Google Search and Maps in fire-prone parts of Canada, the U.S., and Australia.

3. Mitigating heat with tree maps

A less vital but still practical update is the expansion of the Tree Canopy tool, which combines AI and aerial images to show the parts of a city that have decent tree coverage—and therefore better shade and cooler ambient temperatures. Green spaces don’t just make a community look and feel better: more trees are associated with better mental health.

This tool is especially useful for city planners and officials who want to plant trees to mitigate the urban heat island effect, which creates dangerous heat conditions particularly in lower income neighborhoods. Google has now expanded this tool to more than 20,000 cities. “We recently partnered with American Forests in the U.S. to make our tree canopy data available on their Tree Equity Score tool, ensuring shade in cities is equitably distributed,” the company said.

4. Better electric vehicle search results

Looking for a new set of wheels? Google wants to make it easier for you to pick an electric car. This update includes better insights that will hopefully encourage more folks to buy electric. EV sales increased significantly in 2023, and more states are working to expand charging infrastructure, so this update is timely.

Car shopping can feel especially stressful, as can understanding available tax breaks. If you look for an electric vehicle in Google Search, you’ll see useful information, including federal incentives and details about battery range, for each EV model.

5. Lowering traffic emissions

This one’s a bit wonky, but it’s a neat idea. With Project Green Light, a tool for traffic engineers, Google aims to make stop lights more efficient, resulting in fewer stops and thus lower emissions from cars. That should also mean better air quality for people living near these intersections.

The tech is now available for 70 intersections in 12 cities around the world. The company used AI and Google Maps driving trends model to make recommendations. Implementing the changes could mean reducing traffic light stops by up to 30% and emissions at busy intersections by up to 10%, according to Google.

It’s a nice effort, but here’s to hoping that governments will invest in better public transportation and more interconnected rail systems.

6. Mapping eco-friendly travel routes

Ever worry about how your personal travel choices affect your climate footprint? Google is helping even more people consider less energy-intensive routes by expanding fuel-efficient routing in Google Maps to India and Indonesia this year.

Efficient routing already exists in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Google uses AI to find travel routes that will create fewer emissions. For cars, efficient routes will mean ones that “that have fewer hills, less traffic, and constant speeds,” but with a similar ETA to other options. Some users looking for flights will also see rail options, if they’re applicable to the location and destination. “Since launching in October 2021, it’s estimated to have helped prevent more than 2.4 million metric tons of CO2e emissions — the equivalent of taking approximately 500,000 fuel-based cars off the road for a year,” Google claims.

7. Enabling energy-efficient home improvements

This update is lower on the list, because making home improvements isn’t within many budgets amid the cost of living crisis. But for those who can, Google is giving you more information to make eco-friendly home choices.

Google search will outline details on energy efficiency and financial incentives from the government. If you’re in the U.S., the data will come from the Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR. If you’re searching for home options in the EU, your energy efficiency data will be drawn from the International Energy Agency. Looking for a boiler or a furnace? Google will tell you about alternatives like heat pumps and the tax credits available for installing one. If you search for air conditioners, Google will provide more details about sustainable AC options.

8. Lowering the climate impact of long-distance travel

Have family and friends around the globe, or are you just an avid traveler? You probably already know that international travel is big carbon emitter. You can choose not to fly, sure, but real effective change has to come from policymakers and those responsible for aviation infrastructure.

Google announced that it is expanding cleaner aviation efforts with a new partnership with EUROCONTROL, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation. This collaboration aims to use AI and aviation data to generate flight routes that create fewer contrails, the white streaks airplanes leave in the sky that can contribute to global warming. This comes after an earlier partnership with the Bill Gates climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy, and American Airlines, to plan sustainable flight routes, the Verge reported. Initial trials reduced contrails by more than 50%, according to Google.

It’s worth pointing out that aviation only accounts for about 2% of global emissions, according to data from the International Energy Agency. That does not mean that we shouldn’t tackle emissions and climate issues from all angles, but this collaboration doesn’t have the widest user case.

9. Cool roofs for extreme heat

Image: Google

Finally, we have the expansion of Google’s Cool Roofs tool. Cool roofs, as they’re known, are great for reflecting light and mitigating heat in urban areas.

Like Google’s tree-mapping tool, Cool Roofs uses AI and aerial photos to provide better insights about reflective rooftops. This tool can be used by city planners and officials to identify areas where reflective white roofs could be more useful. The tool is available in four cities and will expand to several others in the coming weeks, including New York and Nashville.

Want more climate and environment stories? Check out Earther’s guides to decarbonizing your home, divesting from fossil fuels, packing a disaster go bag, and overcoming climate dread. And don’t miss our coverage of the latest IEA report on clean energy, the future of carbon dioxide removal, and the invasive plants you should rip to shreds.

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