CyEnce: Taking on Climate

Iowa State's High Performance Computing (HPC) technology may soon be a big player in global climate change. No, the heat from the supercomputer, CyEnce, isn't going to warm the atmosphere. The science it produces will help researchers understand recent climate patterns and make projections that can bring about change in a number of industries, including agriculture.

Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and geological and atmospheric sciences, is a member of the team that applied for and received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the HPC cluster.

Takle has been working on global climate since the mid-1970s, and has done climate modeling, based on his research, since the early '90s.

Gene Takle

Takle and his team are not weather forecasters. "Climate is different than weather," he explains. "Weather forecasts beyond four or five days are not reliable." His team's research is leading to projections of overall climate patterns for 100 years and more.

What we know now is this: The seasons are changing. Extreme weather events are increasing. Heavy rains in the spring, which we have seen in the Midwest the past several years, are more frequent and more intense.

"We know heat-trapping gases are increasing. Heat is going to be managed differently in the atmosphere. More heat allows for more moisture and therefore more intense storms," Takle said. Those patterns, already being observed, are projected by the models to increase and likely become the new normal.

"This might lead to the development of new regions where corn might be grown, and the elimination of some regions where it might not be the most successful crop anymore," he said.

So how does ISU's HPC technology affect Takle's research? "The bigger the computer, the more interesting and economically relevant problems you can run," he said.

To run more sophisticated models, and make more accurate predictions, Takle's people need higher resolution on the maps they use. CyEnce is a faster computer with a bigger memory, and can run models further into the future at more gridpoints, Takle explained.

Twenty years ago, on their maps, one gridpoint represented one state. "The Rocky Mountains looked like just a big bump over Utah." Later, technology improved enough that one gridpoint represented one county. With CyEnce, the maps are even more precise, with up to 100 gridpoints representing one county.

"When you get more fine resolution horizontally, you also need calculations done in more closely spaced time intervals, once every minute rather than three hours," Takle said, "With these capabilities, we can better represent reality and not make so many embarrassing approximations."

Then, bring in the scientists. "Predictions and modeling are done using basic physics equations," Takle said. You start with measurements and then start moving things forward in time with the laws of physics."

CyEnce allows the climate science team to alter landscapes, such as covering the Midwest with biofuel crops rather than corn and soybeans, to see the impact on locations, timing, and intensity of thunderstorms.

"If we change surface conditions or starting date ever so slightly, we get a different realization."

Takle's projects are different from other projects using CyEnce; his research doesn't require real time like other projects, such as those using virtual reality, for example. "Our projects are different, with long simulations. We could hog the whole computer for five months." But they won't.

"Our models can pause while others are using the computer, and then we can sweep up a lot of free cycles when others aren't using it."

CyEnce, humming along in the basement of Durham Center, quietly changing the world.

For more information about HPC at ISU, contact Jim Coyle in HPC Operations or visit the HPC website. For more information about climate research at Iowa State, visit the Climate Science Program.