Exploring the Climates of Earth’s Future Supercontinent with a NASA Supercomputer
Scientists from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the University of Lisbon (Portugal), and Bangor University (United Kingdom) leveraged a NASA supercomputer to explore possible scenarios for Earth supercontinents and climate 200 and 250 million years into the future.
The research idea germinated at the 2019 European Planetary Science Congress in Geneva, Switzerland. During a poster session, GISS research scientist Michael Way met University of Lisbon PhD student Hannah Sophia Davies at “this cool poster on what the next supercontinent cycle would look like,” Way said. “I asked her if we could do some climate modeling together, and so we did.”
The main goal of Way and Davies' computational study was to see if Earth’s climate would change dramatically from that of today given a vastly different land layout, slightly higher insolation (Sun brightness), and a slower planetary rotation rate (adding 30 minutes to each day). The results appear in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.
The land layouts focused on two theoretical future supercontinents that form over millions of years as the underlying tectonic plates shift the existing continents:
- Aurica: all continents combine into a single landmass near the equator 250 million years into the future.
- Amasia: Antarctica stays put, but the other continents combine well north of the equator 200 million years into the future.
Variations on these two supercontinent configurations and the present-day Earth continents (for comparison) served as inputs to 45 simulations with the NASA GISS ROCKE-3D model that ran on the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) Discover supercomputer. Each simulation consumed 44 cores for 1 to 3 months, with total output data of 37 terabytes initially stored on Discover’s disk.
From that full simulation set, the nine published simulations explored combinations of the following parameters:
|Continent Configuration||Aurica||Amasia||Present-day Earth|
|Topography Mean Height in Meters (m)||1–200m||1–4,000m||1–200m + mountains|
|Sun Brightness||Same as today||Increased by ~2.4%|
|Day Length||24 hours||24.5 hours|
While all the Aurica and Amasia supercontinent cases allow liquid water to exist year-round, Way said that the study team did not expect the Amasia-with-higher-topography case to be so icy and have surface temperatures several degrees Celsius below the other future Earth simulations. These results show the importance of considering topography for similar climate studies of both Earth and hypothetical exoplanetary atmospheres.
Noting the critical role of supercomputing, Way observed, “we simply could not do this sort of study on any other resource available to us. NCCS support for our climate runs in terms of compilers and libraries is unsurpassed and vital to the success of our present and future endeavors.”
Joining Way and Davies on the study were Joäo C. Duarte, University of Lisbon, and Mattias Green, Bangor University. The research team plans to study two other future supercontinent scenarios using the same methods.
The climates of Earth's next supercontinent: Effects of tectonics, rotation rate, and insolation. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 22, no. 8, e2021GC009983, doi:10.1029/2021GC009983., H.S. Davies, J.C. Duarte, and J.A.M. Green, 2021: