As we celebrate Earth Day 2013, we’re surrounded by mixed news about our planet. Global warming, deforestation, over-fishing and industrial accidents continue to threaten our environment. Yet there are tiny glimpses of hope, too. Some species, such as California’s elephant seal, are actually making a comeback.  Energy from solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels in 105 countries. Technology is being developed that could help bring the ocean’s dead zones back to life.

As our awareness of the environmental problem increases, so do the capabilities of our technology. We could very well innovate our way out of the most dire environmental problems.

Big data is playing a promising role. Here are some of the areas where big data is making a difference:

Measuring the Ocean
Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) collects information from a huge network of underwater sensors. Video cameras and measuring devices are mounted on vehicles, ocean observation stations, satellites and even on ocean animals. The sensors read any number of indicators, from species movements to ocean temperature, salinity and carbon storage. More than 300 researchers receive data from IMOS, resulting in the publication of 1,000 or more scientific studies to date, according to the Human Face of Big Data.

Mapping Forest Damage and Animal Habitat
The Carnegie Airborne Observatory monitors large-scale changes to land environments via spectroscopes and lasers mounted on a twin prop plane. This flying big-data gathering device has, so far, mapped the chemical composition of the Amazon rainforest to track carbon impact, discovered why different plant species filter chemicals and carbon the way they do, and more.\

Instant WILD, an iPhone app, sends images captured by cameras placed in remote, wild locations to people who have downloaded the app on their mobile devices. When people see animals on the app, they send a notification to the Zoological Society of London, which owns the app. This saves scientists hours of staring at video footage—and hastens the discovery of information about important animal species.

Bio-Engineering Fossil Fuel Replacements
An array of companies are developing potentially game-changing technologies like carbon capture and biofuels. Synthetic Genomics is using big data genome sequencing to custom-design organisms, such as bacteria and algae, to perform tasks such as energy production. These organisms could eventually replace fossil fuels.

Corporate Sustainability
Many companies already know how many gallons of water they consume a month, and how many tons of waste they produce. With big data analytics, businesses can take that knowledge a step further and use it to inform the timing and nature of more environmentally friendly decisions. A company could note, for example, that summers are growing hotter, leading to a greater air-conditioning expense for the foreseeable future. The company could make the decision to invest in becoming more energy-efficient sooner rather than later.

The Bottom Line
Measurement and analysis lead to new insights. Those insights lead to better decisions. That is the bottom line with big data. When it comes to the environment, we have a track record of poor decisions. It’s time to reverse that trend, and big data is poised to be a key player for years to come.