Research News

New NASA/SGI Supercomputer Brings "Early Spring" to Climate Models

As winter arrives across the country, a new supercomputer that will create the best-ever models of how the Earth's climate works is being "fired up" as part of NASA's efforts to better understand the global environment. What used to take a year to calculate on a single processor might be done now in less than a day on this 512-processor machine.

From portraying the current climate more quantitatively to simulating future potential global warming scenarios, NASA will provide better science for economic and policy decisions using this new, powerful machine.

The 512-processor, SGI Origin 3800 supercomputer recently went into service at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. In technology developed especially for NASA, all processors share the computer's 128-part memory as if it were a single entity to improve performance significantly over other "clustered" architectures. Up to a 10-fold improvement on an Earth-science application has been realized with this new architecture using optimizing techniques and multi-level parallelism (MLP) software developed at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

"This latest supercomputing technology grants NASA scientists a significant new capability for understanding and simulating the intricacies of our planet's climate system," said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, Associate Administrator for Earth Sciences, NASA Headquarters, Washington. "For instance, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York has been able to complete in two months research that previously would have taken six."

"This success shows the power of direct collaboration between NASA and industry, focusing our efforts on one of the most important scientific policy questions facing the country. I'm very pleased that our joint work has resulted in a significant new capability for the global climate research community," said Dr. William J. Feiereisen, a senior scientist at Ames.

The primary user of the new supercomputer is Goddard's Data Assimilation Office and a NASA-NOAA joint weather-forecast improvement project. The Office is preparing for the 2002 launch of the Aqua satellite by building NASA's next-generation software to incorporate observations into global climate models.

Aqua will observe changes in Earth's atmosphere, complementing the Terra satellite already in orbit. Together, Aqua and Terra will provide the first observations on interfaces between the atmosphere, oceans and land that this new computer will "crunch" into highly accurate climate models. The models will assist in better weather prediction and a better understanding of our global environment.

"With the Origin 3800, NASA will more than double the amount of data it ingests to 800,000 observations each day," said Dr. Richard B. Rood, a senior scientist at Goddard. "We will also integrate assimilation systems for several satellites so that, like the real Earth, the impact of one type of data will be felt by another type of data."

The Origin's processing power, along with the MLP software that takes advantage of its unique memory design, will enable the NASA climate models to run more than four times faster and at double the spatial resolution of today's models.

With one-quarter of the computing resources available to it, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies will be better able to explore natural and human influences on the climate. The Institute researches the many, not-yet-understood factors that contribute to global warming. These climate studies focus on timescales ranging from a decade to a century.

"This more capable computer will allow us to employ more realistic representations of global climate systems in our attempts to understand climate change that has already occurred and to predict climate change that will occur throughout the 21st century," said Institute Chief Dr. James E. Hansen. "Our most pressing needs are to represent the full atmosphere -- troposphere and stratosphere -- with adequate vertical resolution and to represent the ocean with better horizontal and vertical resolution. These improvements will be possible with the Origin 3800."

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise is a long-term research effort dedicated to providing industry and policy leaders with sound scientific knowledge of how natural and human-induced changes affect our global environment. As part of this effort, the Enterprise partners with industry to develop the new technologies needed for global observations.

Related Links

NASA Center for Computational Sciences

Media Contacts

Leslie McCarthy, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, N.Y., 212-678-5507,