‘Power-hungry data centers greedily devour diminishing water supply!’ –

This might be my own frequency bias, but I feel like every headline today references data centers and the existential threat they pose to the environment.

Perhaps it’s the sensational numbers and estimates that pull me in:

So here I am, uncomfortably deep in the rabbit hole, reading about adiabatic processes and wet cooling towers (experts in the U.K. fear the latter could trigger a legionella bacteria outbreak—of course, I knew that).

I’m in over my head, no doubt, but allow me to first give you the CliffsNotes version of what’s going on—then I’ll share a list of brilliant minds who are dedicating their professional lives to solving this compounding crisis. Listen to what these experts have to say, follow them on social media, and apply their advice to your own corporate sustainability strategy.

First, the short and not so sweet:

Some of the biggest tech giants—Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft—have already set aggressive, transparent sustainability goals. But despite their public efforts, there are several complicating factors that are making it difficult to affect wholesale change:

  • Very few data center operators today disclose how much water they use, and in one study, less than 1/3 even track water metrics at all.
  • The role of water and its association to power usage, carbon emissions and technology is still a relatively new concept—not yet embedded in people’s minds. There’s not the same sense of urgency in tech circles over water, but that day is fast approaching.
  • The average data center has a life span of 20-25 years so it’s unclear how many are designed with water conservation in mind (shutting them all down to rebuild more eco-friendly infrastructure isn’t a great idea either, it might prompt a scene akin to ‘War of The Worlds’—kidding, sort of).

Why should you care?

A company’s ESG reputation matters today just as much as its profits and product line. Consumers and shareholders, especially younger generations, will switch to a competitor if that alternative offers more transparent, sustainable business practices.

And aside from the industry-leading companies mentioned above, and the growing body of academic research I’ll list below, in the near future your company, very well your IT department, will be rated on its environmental impact and likely punished if it’s not up to par. It’s only a matter of time.

News broke earlier this month that researchers from Bloomberg Quant Research and Amazon Web Services have developed a machine learning model that can estimate emissions at companies who do not disclose their ‘Green IT’ information.

{Read more: Nexthink’s developed and deployed a way to accurately measure device, application, and even server emissions – a technology that customers are using right now!}

Follow the experts below to learn more about data centers and the impending water crisis

Dr. Landon Marston, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech & A.B. Siddik, Graduate Student at Virginia Tech

Dr. Marston and A.B. Siddik have churned out several important research findings about on-site data center water consumption, particularly in water-stressed regions in the United States. A.B. Siddik, a lead author in many reports, mapped out that roughly one-fifth of data centers draw water from moderately to highly stressed watersheds.

And Dr. Marston has continuously pointed out that even though data centers are becoming more energy efficient and don’t require as much water as say, the agriculture industry, their proliferation will soon create competition with local communities for a diminishing water supply. Companies and IT departments would be smart to think about this conflict and the role they play.

David Mytton, Co-founder of Console & Researcher in Sustainable Computing at Uptime Institute

David Mytton is another important researcher that has published several works on water consumption and data center emissions. In a report published at Uptime Institute, Mytton revealed that your standard, medium-sized data center (15MW) uses as much water as three average-sized hospitals or more than two 18-hole golf courses! Mytton has also published phenomenal, visual summaries which compare data center consumption statistics across the globe and across many of the big tech giants cited earlier.

Dr. Lotfi Belkhir, McMaster University

Associate professor at McMaster University in Canada who coauthored an earlier paper that predicts a roughly 10-fold increase in the share of global greenhouse gas emissions from data centers by 2040. To put this increase into context: that’s more than half the relative contribution of the entire transportation sector worldwide.

His research also points out that the brunt of emissions will come from hardware production, which in turn is being driven by software companies. Every text, email, or download plays a part and adds to the scale.

Daniel Burczyk, Data Centre Specialist, Airedale

If you want to learn about the latest cooling techniques and their costs and benefits, then Daniel Burczyk is your go-to expert. Mr. Burczyk breaks down air-side optimization cooling, adiabatic cooling, wet cooling towers, water side optimization, and all other relevant alternatives that data center operators (and their consumers) should be thinking about. He also proposes some sound advice on how data centers can achieve more free cooling and thus reduce their carbon footprint.