Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

ESIIL Aims to Foster a “Revolution” in Environmental Data Science

New national center at CU Boulder, CIRES will tackle pressing socio-environmental challenges with big data analytics, more

The National Science Foundation is funding a major new data science and diversity effort at CIRES and the University of Colorado Boulder—the Environmental Data Science Innovation and Inclusion Lab or ESIIL. The new center will enable work that illuminates the biological impacts of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, helps planners prepare for extreme disturbances such as wildfires and floods, and above all, includes diverse voices and responds to community needs. 

Funding of $20M for 5 years will support collaborative research and education involving huge biological and environmental science datasets, innovative cyber infrastructure, machine-learning approaches to analysis, and engagement with decision makers and other stakeholders.

ESIIL, pronounced like the word “easel,” promises to empower a diverse community of researchers to turn environmental data into actionable knowledge, said ESIIL director Jennifer Balch, an associate professor of Geography and a fellow of CIRES. The metaphor of an easel is intentional, Balch said: “We want to be the structure to support vivid new science.”

NSF and other agencies and organizations have established environmental networks and observatories that are generating vast amounts of open access environmental data—more data than can be analyzed to their full potential today, said Balch. So she and colleagues from across CU Boulder, the University of Arizona, and the University of Oslo proposed building “a community of thousands” of researchers and students who know how to ask and answer important environmental questions with data.

The new center will link Tribes and Tribal colleges, other academic institutions, government agencies and private organizations, said James Rattling Leaf Sr., ESIIL’s Tribal liaison.

“Effective partnerships and communication among these groups are needed to address major challenges facing our world and ESIIL is well positioned to address those challenges,” Rattling Leaf Sr. said.

University of Arizona research assistant professor Tyson Swetnam, also part of the new center’s leadership team, is an informatician at CyVerse, an NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure center at UArizona, which will be a foundational ESIIL partner.

Swetnam said he can imagine ESIIL supporting a project, for example, by a student researcher located in rural Arizona who lacks access to large computing resources. With just a cell phone and intermittent broadband internet connection, he said, she should be able to freely explore and analyze diverse datasets on the cloud, looking for evidence of, say, genetic resilience in spruce trees growing on the peaks of Arizona’s sky islands, where many species are threatened by warming, drought, pests and disease.

“We want to support open data, open source software, open code…and open science,” Swetnam said.

CU Boulder Computer Science professor Claire Monteleoni is another critical ESIIL leadership member,  an expert in using machine learning in climate science who helped create the field of climate informatics a decade ago. She and her colleagues are leaders in using machine learning to unlock insights in complex environmental data that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to decipher—a focus of ESIIL. For example, her team is collaborating with others to use machine learning to improve predictions of extreme weather events and even coastal inundation from climate change.

Monteleoni said she’s inspired by ESIIL’s focus on team science. The lab will be studying itself, essentially, to help identify factors that help diverse teams work well together, as well as the impact of teamwork training. “I’ve spent the first chunk of my career trying to get people working on climate change to talk with people working on AI and machine learning, “Monteleoni said. “So it will be great to have lessons coming from team science as we connect these communities through this data synthesis center that will serve the nation.”

Finally, ESIIL will involve students and communities, facilitating access to data and training tomorrow’s scientific workforce. ESIIL’s Stars internship program will support students and faculty members from institutions that serve underrepresented groups in STEM, starting with key partners at Oglala Lakota College, United Tribes Technical College, and Metropolitan State University of Denver. ESIIL’s Leaders program will support emerging scientists from underrepresented communities. The CIRES Education & Outreach team will be involved in these efforts, which will also engage diversity experts in CIRES and Computer Sciences. 

“From students and researchers to industry, government, Tribal, and nonprofit partners, the ESIIL Network will be an interdisciplinary 21st-century team that is committed to generating data-driven discoveries that increase planetary resilience in an equitable way,” said Balch.

ESIIL Partners 

CIRES at CU Boulder has partnered with NOAA since 1967.


Jennifer Balch
principal investigator
Tyson Swetnam
NSF Media Affairs
(703) 292-7090
Katie Weeman
CIRES Communications

Recent Stories