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The fate of NASA's supercomputer may depend on Sen. Ted Cruz

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 20, 2014
Two petaflops are dedicated to climate research, but Cruz opposes climate change funding.

NASA is developing systems that can model the climate into the future, and a byproduct of that will be a better understanding of future weather and storm forecasting.

"Climate is an extremely hard application to run, and it's lending itself to an exascale system," Duffy said. He added that to understand the climate could easily require a system with as many as 20 million cores.

The highest resolution of NASA computers is now 3.5 kilometers. The resolution, which is analogous to pixel resolution in digital photography, provides more detail in a simulation, but to get the better resolution requires increased supercomputing power. For instance, to simulate the global climate over 10 days takes a full day of compute time to make a forecast. "That's not good enough," Duffy said.

While 3.5-kilometer resolution is good, it's not what's needed for reflecting real-world conditions. What NASA scientists want is to reduce the resolution (the higher the resolution the greater the detail) to 1 kilometer, and even get to as low as a city block.

At that scale, scientists will be able to resolve specific weather events, such as a Midwestern supercells, the innards of hurricanes, and better understand the future of the climate. The new supercomputer, which will be ready to run simulations in early December, will, among the things, be used to study "downscaling" techniques, another term for increasing the resolution of the models.

The supercomputer will also help scientists study the chemistry of the upper atmosphere, the impact of airborne particles called aerosols, and how changes in the planet's surface, such as the shrinkage of the ice caps, increase heat absorption.

There aren't many places that run these complex simulations, and if NASA doesn't run them, then the U.S., and the rest of the world, will need to rely on the scientific information available from other nations, Duffy said.


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