Supercomputing for a Changing Planet: Simulation and Climate Change

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Focus on the thrustsThere are few issues today that capture as much attention as climate change: from policy makers and soccer moms to activists and mathematicians, a great deal of the world’s intellectual capability is focused on understanding, managing, and reversing the damaging climate effects of human activity on planet earth. The scope and complexity of the climate change problem pushes the boundaries of our scientific and engineering capabilities, even as the vast scale of the problem challenges our concepts of governance and the organization of civil society.

Climate scientists examine how elements such as atmosphere, land surface, ocean and sea ice systems interact to create global weather patterns whose statistics compiled over long periods of time define the climate state. They use sophisticated mathematical algorithms and complex calculations on supercomputers to gain a better understanding of climate system processes, and to use that understanding to predict changes in the Earth’s climate.

In fact, computer simulation is one of the few tools available to scientists and policy makers for understanding climate change. Numerical models allow us to validate our evolving understanding of the mechanisms of climate change, but the models are so complex that ordinary computers will not suffice. This is precisely the kind of challenge that supercomputers were designed to address, and supercomputing is a vital part of the climate science tool chest.

Climate Simulation at SC10

Climate science is a major focus area at this year’s Supercomputing Conference (SC10), a reflection of the focus that the HPC community is placing on this important issue. SC10, being held in New Orleans this year, will again attract scientists, researchers, students and businesses from around the world.

“The topic of climate has never been more relevant to a meeting like SC10 given the growing importance of simulation to addressing climate change questions from policy makers and stakeholders,” said James Hack, National Center for Computational Sciences director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the SC10 climate simulation thrust co-chair. “HPC will become an even more critical resource to help the broader research community to develop solutions to potential environmental impacts.”

During the conference, attendees will gather to learn from some of the world’s foremost experts in climate change and computation, and participate in exchanges that may shape future solutions. From masterworks sessions on the future of computing in climate science to papers on computational and data analytic issues, SC10 is a must-attend event for anyone working in the intersection of computing and the climate.

“This topic is particularly relevant to SC10, in view of recent extreme weather events, such as the very mild winter in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics while Washington, D.C. experienced the heaviest snowfall in history. It is an open research question whether extreme weather events are related to climate change, ” said William Sawyer, computational scientist at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre, and the SC10 climate simulation thrust area co-chair. “HPC is a critical resource to help the broader research community understand the connection between extreme weather events and climate, develop solutions to current climate issues, and help minimize the environmental impact of future events.”

Those who want to learn more will find a rich selection of papers, talks, and learning opportunities in New Orleans this year.

Learn from the masters

SC10 presents a rare opportunity to learn about the latest in climate science — and the latest thinking in the future of climate science — from the best in the world.

Terry Davies from the UK Meteorological Office will give a plenary talk on Thursday morning looking out over the next 20 years of climate prediction research, while the conference Masterworks program will provide even more opportunities to learn from the best in the world. Princeton’s V. Balaji, Richard Rood from the University of Michigan, James Kinter from the Institute of Global Environment and Society, and Mark Govett from NOAA will present during the week in separate sessions on topics ranging from computation and data management to new advances in our approach to science and the potential of GPUs in climate research applications.

Those looking for more interaction will enjoy Robert Jacob’s Birds of a Feather session on the analysis and visualization of large climate data sets, as well as the panel on “Pushing the Frontiers of Climate and Weather Models” with panelists Christiane Jablonowski, David Randall, Terry Davies, William Putman, Shian-Jiann Lin, and Peter Lauritzen.

And, of course, the week features many papers focused on computational technologies and techniques that those interested in climate science will want to keep in their toolbox.

Time to Dig In

The thrust areas at SC10 offer a unique opportunity to dig deep into critical issues driving the supercomputing community. Tune into events in the Climate Simulation thrust area throughout the week to be sure you are well-positioned to understand the issues of today, and to plan well for the science of tomorrow.

Linda Barney owns Barney and Associates, a technical, marketing writing and web firm in Beaverton, Oregon that provides writing and web content for the high tech, government, medical and scientific communities. Readers can reach her at