Monday, July 23, 2012

Cheyenne's Yellowstone super-computer will bring new precision to climate research

This L.A. Times article on Cheyenne's new super-computer has so many cool, mind-blowing facts in it, and it's so well-written by Scott Gold, that I hate to point out one annoying oddity.

So I won't do that right now. Instead, read these opening paragraphs and feel proud about Laramie County's new claim to fame:
Out on 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. 
This month, 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, after the nearby national park, 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.
Our new computer, Yellowstone, is amazing. One of the goals of all that wizardry, according to the article, is to replace the guesswork of climate sience with precision. It is, after all, a project of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. The National Science Foundation paid $50 million of the $70 facility. The rest was paid by the University of Wyoming. UW aims to plumb the mysteries of carbon sequestration, which makes sense for a university that gets giant coal shovels full of money from the energy industry. Wonder what will happen if long-term, safe carbon sequestration turns out to be as viable as spinning straw into gold?

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Those quarter of a million calculations per second will solve the riddle in due time. Meanwhile, climate scientists all over the globe will be crunching numbers and analyzing data about global warming, polar ice melt, super hurricanes, prolonged droughts, weather effects of solar flares, etc.

NCAR hopes to bring "regional accuracy" to forecasting. As NCAR's Richard Loft says: "The disaster of climate change happens on a regional scale. Everything is connected.""  

Everything is connected. What I like is that Cheyenne will be connected to the super-computer because it is right next door, or nearby. Whatever insights are gained about climate in the next decade, the data will come from Yellowstone. The computer, not the national park.

Which brings me to the one strange fact in the story. Yellowstone is a "nearby national park?" Well, Rocky Mountain National Park is two hours and about 120 miles from Cheyenne. That's nearby. But Yellowstone? That's 450 miles and a good eight hours from Cheyenne. O.K., maybe that's nearby if you live in Wyoming. But I wonder if Yellowstone (the super-computer) would think so? How would a super-computer quantify "nearby?"

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