Climate Change and Supercomputers

In November of 2009, former U.S.Vice President Al Gore gave the keynote speech at the Annual Supercomputing Conference, in Portland, Oregon. The topic Gore chose to discuss was global warming. More precisely, he spoke about using the newest generation of supercomputers to make predictions about climate change (1).
The problem, according to Gore, is that global warming is a large and gradual process. Because of this, it is difficult for the human mind to grasp the eminent dangers of global warming (2). By using supercomputers to create visual simulations of future climate changes, the effects of global warming can be made more tangible. For instance, a recent supercomputer simulation showed just how large the hole in Earth’s ozone layer has become, and how quickly it could be fixed by eliminating the use of chlorofluorocarbons (2).

Currently, research scientists at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) are working hard to achieve supercomputer simulations of global climate change. Since July, 2006, SDSC has been working in partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Colorado State University. According to SDSC laboratory director John Helly, the supercomputers at SDSC will help "advance the accuracy and precision of atmospheric models" (3). One of the goals of this partnership is to use the immense data crunching capabilities of SDSC to detect signs of global warming in the hydrological features of the Western United States (3).

Although supercomputers are immensely useful for scientific research on global warming, they still have their limitations. One of the problems researchers are facing is the problem of discontinuity in computer climate models. So far, most of the climate models that have been produced by supercomputers have been discontinuous, meaning they can only give century-long snapshot of climate changes.

However, the supercomputers at The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are being used to overcome this limitation. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the Nation Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) are using the supercomputers at Oak Ridge to piece together a continuous motion picture of global warming. This will allow scientists to make predictions about abrupt climate changes, something which has been impossible until now. Zhengyu Liu, director of research at the University of Wisconsin, said of the project, “It represents so far the most serious validation test of our model capability for simulating large, abrupt climate changes” (4).


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