On site in Hawai'i: How Terraformation is using AWS technology to reforest the world

• 850 words

Climate change is real. We see the impacts every day, from the increased incidence of once in a lifetime wildfires in Australia and the western United States to life-threatening heatwaves in India, to “Day Zero” water crises in South Africa. Unchecked, these unprecedented climate events will become more common. And while the problem is global, it has become clear to me that solutions must be implemented locally, where the effects are most acutely felt. Recently, I visited Hawai’i to film the latest episode of Now Go Build. Hawai’i’s broad ecosystem represents a majority of the climate zones found on earth, which makes it a perfect place to experiment with large scale reforestation. It also makes it the ideal home for Terraformation, a startup dedicated to building scalable solutions for ecosystem restoration.

Before we go any further, it helps to understand that over the course of the last two centuries, Hawai’i has been mined for its resources and rapidly developed. Areas where forests once stood have been logged and used for cattle grazing, and now sit eroded and wind swept. Sediment and runoff from this soil are the most common cause of water pollution for Hawai’i. Invasive plants and animals have thrived, increasing the risk of fires. And in the last four years alone, urban Honolulu has lost 76,000 trees to urban development significantly reducing tree cover in the city.

There are people working to reverse this trend. Yishan Wong, the Founder and CEO of Terraformation, has an ambitious goal to reforest 3 billion acres globally. A landmass larger than the United States that would be home to nearly 1 trillion trees. An effort of this magnitude, in his estimation, could help to meaningfully stabilize the climate and it is only possible because of the cloud. And it all starts on the Big Island of Hawai’i at the Pacific Flight at Kaupalaoa pilot restoration site.

Fresh water is the single most important resource required for reforestation. And as I’m sure you can imagine, there is no guarantee that the sites available will have access to the volume of fresh water needed to grow and sustain a healthy forest. Pacific Flight is a perfect example. It’s comprised of 45 acres of denuded and desertified land that gets most of its water from a brackish well with a high salinity rate. For any chance to successfully regrow a forest, innovation was required, and Terraformation has delivered by creating the world’s largest off-grid, solar-powered desalination facility.

Their desalination process is powered by solar panels during the day and shut off at night, removing any reliance on expensive batteries for power storage. It is efficient, cost effective, and already producing encouraging results. Today, Pacific Flight produces roughly 34,000 gallons of water per day and sustains more than 6,000 trees. Consider how this implementation can help to accelerate worldwide reforestation efforts in arid off-grid locations. It is a simple and replicable solution for water and land scarcity bottlenecks.

The trees that Terraformation is growing in Hawai’i are native to Hawaiian forests, and planted from matured seeds that have been harvested from plants already acclimatized to their natural surroundings. These seedlings have the best chance to grow into healthy and resilient forests. Growing one trillion trees is a monumental task. Growing one trillion trees that are both diverse and native to the region where they will be planted is even harder, especially when you consider that a 50% germination rate is the best case scenario. Put simply, Terraformation not only needs a lot of seeds to hit their goal, but they need to store those seeds and track details about each to properly reseed the planet.

Terraformation is solving the problem of seed storage by creating a decentralized network of modular seed banks, and they see tremendous opportunities to streamline the processes of identifying and tracking seeds as they are collected and planted, and monitoring growth over time. At its core, this is a data problem, and they are solving this problem using AWS technologies for their data science, data storage, and for native web application development. Their mobile app allows seed collectors to quickly create a digital record for each plant in real-time, including pictures, GPS coordinates, the species, and the date it was harvested. Data from the mobile app is then stored in a database. Over time, with some analysis, this growing dataset will help Terraformation and their partners bank the right seeds, and plant them in the right places at the right times. A perfect marriage of human intuition and cloud technology.

I’m excited to see what Terraformation will do next and how AWS can help. They are already thinking of how to use drones and LIDAR data to monitor and model forest growth, and calculate carbon capture. They see a future where technologies like low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity enable nursery and seed bank expansion to remote off-grid locations.

It is easy to look at problem like climate change and think the worst. But I am optimistic. I truly believe that this is human problem that we can collectively solve.

Now, Go Build!