Date Posted: 11/05/2020

In a report by Srishti Tyagi and Brianna Watson published in The Cornell Daily Sun, we learn of a cross-campus effort at Cornell to scientifically and computationally assess how best to "inform policymakers of the environmental consequences of human actions." Carla Gomes, Ronald C. and Antonia V. Nielsen Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Institute for Computational Sustainability, in association with Alexander Flecker, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Rafael Almeida, postdoctoral researcher with the Atkinson Center for Sustainability, have designed an interdisciplinary research project to this end.

To tackle this problem, Almeida and Flecker bridged the interdisciplinary divide and collaborated with Gomes’ team of computer scientists to sift through hundreds of possible dam projects and evaluate them for their environmental impact and electricity production. 

“When we deal with real problems in the academic world, you have your niches. I do X, and somebody else does Y, and nobody talks to each other,” Gomes said. “This project is awesome because you see, here I am a computer scientist talking to my colleagues in ecology and how we are bringing together completely different worlds.” [...]

Gomes and her team’s method of computational analysis was to take the environmental criteria, optimize them for factors such as electricity generation and plot them utilizing visualization tools such as parallel coordinate plots. 

A graph that models the relationships between variables of different sizes and measurements, parallel coordinate plots are essentially a scientific way of ordering a vast array of different dam planning options. This allows for researchers to manipulate multiple environmental criteria and examine their potential outcomes. 

Gomes explained that artificial intelligence was also used to identify combinations of dams that would produce energy with the least amount of environmental disruption—a feat of computation far too vast for a human to accomplish.

The ultimate goal of this project is to provide policymakers with a tool that can aid and inform the decision-making process regarding where to build hydropower dams in the Amazon basin. 

Gomes said that since their research does not include other factors essential for policy-making decisions, like the socioeconomic effects of hydropower dam projects, the goal of the project was to empower South American leaders with the tools to understand the impacts of their policies. 

“We are not making decisions—we just want to have a scientific way of understanding the impact of the dams,” Gomes said. “We are providing the science, the methodology to understand the impacts. But we are fully aware that there are many, many [other] issues that are underlying the decisions.”

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To learn more about Professor Gomes' research, see additional CS News coverage of her research.

In related news, read about the ten-year anniversary of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.