Supercomputer tames tangle of atmospheric science

  • Article by: SCOTT GOLD , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 4:52 PM

In a little more than an hour, a new supercomputer can do as many calculations as there are grains of sand on every beach in the world.

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The National Center for Atmospheric Research's Wyoming Supercomputer Center rests on a prairie just west of Cheyenne, beyond these bales of hay.

Photo: Scott Gold, Mct

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CHEYENNE, WYO. - Here in the shortgrass prairie, where being stuck in the ways of the Old West is a point of civic pride, scientists are building a machine that will, in effect, look into the future.

On a barren Wyoming landscape dotted with gopher holes and hay bales, the federal government is assembling a supercomputer 10 years in the making, one of the fastest computers ever built and the largest ever devoted to the study of atmospheric science.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research's supercomputer has been dubbed Yellowstone, but it could have been named Nerdvana. The machine will have 100 racks of servers and 72,000 core processors, so many parts that they must be delivered in the back of a 747. Yellowstone will be capable of performing 1.5 quadrillion calculations -- a quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros -- every second.

That's nearly a quarter of a million calculations, each second, for every person on Earth. In a little more than an hour, Yellowstone can do as many calculations as there are grains of sand on every beach in the world.

The study of climate and weather patterns has always been hamstrung by volatility -- by elements of chaos in the seas and the air. That challenge is most famously summed up by the "butterfly effect," the idea that the flapping of a butterfly's wings on the coast of Africa can determine whether a hurricane will strike New Orleans.

The sheer speed of Yellowstone is designed to burst through the limits of chaos theory -- the difference, allegorically, between predicting the odds of blackjack after playing five hands vs. playing a million. The machine is expected to give scientists a clearer image of the state of the planet, and its future, revolutionizing the study of climate change, extreme weather events, wildfires, air pollution and more.

"These are chaotic systems, but it's just math," said Richard Loft, director of technology development at NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Laboratory. "We feed in the basic laws of science, and out comes something that looks like the Earth's climate. It's an instrument. This is a mathematical telescope."

NCAR is in the business of research, not forecasting, but the tools and advances produced from its research could have a profound effect on forecasting. Armed with a high-fidelity portrait of Earth systems, scientists around the nation can begin to pinpoint the regional effect of changes in the weather and atmosphere. Rather than warning of a hurricane striking Texas, they hope to be able to warn that it will strike the town of Freeport, with a top wind speed of 90 mph and a tidal surge of 4 1/2 feet.

That accuracy is particularly critical in the study of climate change. "The disaster of climate change happens on a regional scale," Loft said. "Everything is connected."

For example, once scientists use Yellowstone to help predict the melting of ice at the North Pole, they can better predict the patterns of storms that form in the Gulf of Alaska. Then Yellowstone can help predict how those storms will deposit snow atop the Sierra Nevada, down to precise changes in elevation on individual faces of mountains. Said Richard Neale, an NCAR project scientist: "It's taking the macro information and applying it to the things that matter."

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