Microsoft Expands Support for The Nature Conservancy for Earth Day

This week on our blog, we’ve highlighted ways that Microsoft, its employees and its business partners are leveraging new technology to improve the sustainability of their companies and communities. Today, we are focusing on our nonprofit partners, including a new grant to The Nature Conservancy that expands on our broader support for nonprofits globally.

In January 2016 Microsoft announced a $1 billion commitment to bring cloud computing resources to nonprofit organizations around the world. We believe nonprofits should have access to the same computing power as industry, and that the ability to harness insights from big data will lead to new discoveries. As part of that commitment, every day we donate nearly $2 million in products and services to nonprofits, and help organizations like World Wildlife Fund, Rocky Mountain Institute, Carbon Disclosure Project, Wildlife Conservation Society and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Climate Neutral Now initiative, as well as a number of local organizations, to advance solutions that benefit both people and the planet.

Photo provided by The Nature Conservancy. Photo credit: Paul Joseph Brown

Partnering for the Future

Microsoft’s environmental mission is to empower people and organizations globally to thrive in a resource-constrained world. Putting technology in the hands of the researchers, scientists and policy specialists at nonprofits is a critical part of that work.

Today, we are pleased to announce a new grant to The Nature Conservancy that will enable this highly-regarded organization to do even more to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Azure grant will be distributed over the next three years and will allow The Nature Conservancy to expand its Natural Solutions Toolkit to inform real-time, science-based decision-making at the local level. This will make it easier for communities everywhere to build coastal resilience strategies, fight pollution and provide clean water for people around the world. The Toolkit is the Conservancy’s largest suite of geospatial tools and web apps for climate adaptation and resilience planning across land and sea environments.

Coastal Resilience

Nearly half the world’s population—some 3.5 billion people—lives near coasts. As climate change exacerbates the effects of storms, flooding and erosion, the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of those people will be at risk. But nature-based solutions, such as the conservation of marsh and forest land, can help provide protection. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, intact coastal wetlands helped shield communities and prevent an estimated $625 million in flood damages.

Coastal Resilience is a public-private partnership led by The Nature Conservancy to help coastal communities address the devastating effects of climate change and natural disasters. Marking its 10th anniversary this year, The Nature Conservancy will migrate specific programs and projects within the Natural Solutions Toolkit, including Coastal Resilience in Washington, to Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and expand it to include:

  • Historic, real-time, and climate projection analysis and data processing across social-ecological system
  • Decision support tool and app design, usability testing, and effective use analytics
  • Business opportunities that address local and global environmental challenges and nature-based solutions

To date, the Coastal Resilience program has trained and supported over 100 communities globally, including 17 coastal states in the U.S., about the uses and applications of the tool to develop risk reduction, restoration and resilience strategies that help protect local habitats, communities and economies.

As part of the new Microsoft grant, these tools and this learning will be expanded and applied to new types of projects, including a pilot project already underway right here in Washington state.

Puget Sound, WA

We share a mutual interest in ensuring the health of Puget Sound. Puget Sound’s lowland river valleys are among the region’s most valuable assets, delivering a wealth of natural, agricultural, industrial, recreational and health benefits to the four million people who live in the region. However, Puget Sound communities are at increasing risk of flooding issues from rising sea levels, more extreme coastal storms, and more frequent river flooding. Puget Sound freshwater and marine ecosystems are also experiencing water quality and quantity issues stemming from increasing land development pressure, stormwater pollution, and altered freshwater delivery.

Emily Howe, an aquatic ecologist for the Washington chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Photo provided by The Nature Conservancy.

Emily Howe, an aquatic ecologist for The Conservancy’s Washington chapter, is leading work to build out a mapping tool as part of the Coastal Resilience toolkit that will help reduce the flow of polluted stormwater into Puget Sound. Seventy-five percent of the toxic chemicals entering the Sound are carried by stormwater runoff that flows off hard urban surfaces, turning rainfall from a natural resource to a vehicle for pollution when it hits the ground. This pollution is destroying the web of life in Puget Sound – killing salmon, poisoning orcas, and damaging the tiny forage fish that everything depends on.

That’s why Howe helped develop the new Stormwater Infrastructure mapping tool. It will help local planners match the right solution, such as rain gardens and swale systems, to the right place to better fight and prevent pollution. The tool—which will ultimately be incorporated into the Puget Sound Coastal Resilience tool set that will be hosted on Azure—will include a high-level heat map of stormwater pollution for the region, an overlay of pollution data with human and ecological data to help prioritize areas of concern, and links to additional resources and solutions.

“Stormwater presents a twin environmental issue: water quantity and water quality,” says Howe.  “While people can personally observe and experience flooding issues, the toxic chemical soup of stormwater pollution is invisible to the eye. That invisibility doesn’t mean it is benign- starting at the cellular level, stormwater pollutants wreak havoc on fish and wildlife populations, with ramifications reverberating all the way up the Puget Sound food web. This tool will expose the Puget Sound stormwater problem by using geospatial technology to visualize pollutant-generating hotspots across the landscape, then helping communities strategically locate Green Stormwater Infrastructure to intercept pollutants before they enter freshwater and marine ecosystems. Given that water is nature’s greatest integrator, collective local efforts will protect a collection of local waterbodies as well as the Sound.”

Global Impact

The Natural Solutions Toolkit is also being used to better understand and protect water resources around the world.

Today, an estimated 1.7 billion people living in the world’s largest cities depend on water flowing from watersheds sometimes located hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers away. By 2050, those urban source watersheds will be tapped by up to two-thirds of the global population.

Kari Vigerstol, Global Water Funds Director of Conservation, The Nature Conservancy. Photo provided by The Nature Conservancy.

To help cities protect their local water sources, Kari Vigerstol, the Nature Conservancy’s Global Water Funds Director of Conservation, oversaw development of a tool to provide them with better data. “Beyond the Source” analyzed 4,000 cities and found that natural solutions can improve water quality for four out of five cities. This would provide a billion people around the world access to cleaner water.

But this isn’t just about data – it’s how to empower cities to take action on this information. The beta version of Protecting Water Atlas allows users to explore data and access proven solutions and funding models to improve water quality and supply for the future.

“By understanding how nature-based-solutions applied in urban water supply basins can help improve water quality—while providing a suite of other benefits such as climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection and human health and well-being benefits—cities will have a more robust set of tools in their water security toolkit,” Vigerstol says. “The Protecting Water Atlas allows users to explore how activities such as forest protection and agricultural best management practices can reduce loading of excess sediment and fertilizer to their water systems under different scenarios, how much these activities might cost, and to grow their understanding of the potential for a platform such as a Water Fund to implement these activities at the scale needed to help ensure clean, reliable water for people and nature.”

Looking Ahead

This is just the latest chapter in a long history of support and strategic collaboration between Microsoft and The Nature Conservancy. Over the years, Microsoft has made significant contributions of hardware, software and investments in The Conservancy’s carbon offset projects in South America. And it builds on our collaboration this Earth Week – yesterday, Dr. Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Scientist at Microsoft, joined Sambhav Sankar, Senior Advisor at The Nature Conservancy, and others, on a panel in Washington, D.C., to discuss how computational technology is driving more efficient and scalable biodiversity conservation across the U.S. and internationally.

Microsoft is proud to support the expansion of The Nature Conservancy’s innovative Natural Solutions Toolkit, which is already powering on-the-ground and in-the-water projects around the world—benefiting coastal communities, residents of the Puget Sound and others globally.

Learn more about Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to sustainability throughout Earth Week by following us on Twitter and Facebook.

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