Exaflops Needed to Solve Climate Crisis?

By Michael Feldman

December 10, 2009

This week Cray announced an Exascale Research Initiative, in which the supercomputer maker will team with a number of European HPC groups to research and develop technologies to support exaflop computing. This mirrors a June announcement by IBM that talks about an exascale research center in Ireland. No big surprises here. Everyone expects Cray and IBM to be pushing the exascale envelope.

But when it comes to talking about exascale applications, I wonder why the prospect of developing more accurate climate models and accelerating energy research is being used as a rationale for why we need such systems. In the Cray press release this week, company CEO Peter Ungaro stated: “We know there are scientific breakthroughs in important areas such as new energy sources and global climate change that are waiting for exascale performance, and we are working hard on building next-generation supercomputers that will be capable of it.” It is certainly not the first time the selling of exascale has been linked with climate and energy research, as even a cursory Google search will demonstrate.

Surely I’m not the only one who sees the cognitive disconnect here. The first sustained exaflop machines aren’t expected to boot up until the end of the next decade. I hope we’re not counting on “scientific breakthroughs” in 2019 to solve our 2009 energy and climate crisis. In case you haven’t picked up a newspaper in the last five years or so, a consensus has formed that we’re already more than fashionably late to the global housewarming party, the recent “Climategate” dust-up notwithstanding.

A February 2009 article in Scientific American warns that “the risk of catastrophic climate change is getting worse,” according to a recent study by United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There’s a real possibility that it’s already too late to reverse some of the damage resulting from rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and more extreme weather patterns. Quoting Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider from the Scientific American piece: “We’ve dawdled, and if we dawdle more it will get even worse. It’s time to move.” Notice he didn’t say: “Let’s run the numbers again with more fidelity and see what gives.”

Likewise, relying on exascale computing to help with the development of non-carbon based energy sources seems like a doomed strategy. If we’re not well on our way to kicking the oil and gas habit by the end of the next decade, I can’t imagine some amped up simulation of wind turbines is going to save us 10 years hence.

It’s disheartening to realize how long we’ve actually known about this problem compared to how little we’ve done. In watching a several-year-old rerun of a “The West Wing” episode the other day, a discussion of global warming came up that was depressingly similar to the ones we hear today. Let’s face it: there are all sorts of low-tech approaches (e.g., conservation, electric vehicles, carbon taxing, etc.) that require nary a FLOP of computing power, but will do a lot to put us on the road to climate redemption. For the past 10 years, the lack of action wasn’t related to technological shortcomings, just a lack of political will.

Part of the problem has to be the way we treat the climate and energy research itself, as if it’s some sort of lab experiment divorced from reality. We certainly don’t demand the same level of scientific scrutiny about decisions related to our personal well-being.

Let’s say 9 out of 10 doctors told you that you had a heart condition that will incapacitate you (if not kill you) in ten years, adding that the condition can be remedied by changing your lifestyle. The lifestyle changes would be onerous, but nothing that you wouldn’t be able to adapt to. Would you a) demand better proof of the heart condition from the nine doctors in agreement, b) wait for technology that would allow you to eat deep-fried twinkies without the deleterious side-effects or c) suck it up? Only a fool would choose a or b. Yet, so far, those are the two types of options we’ve chosen in response to our global crisis.

Don’t get me wrong. We should certainly continue to employ cutting-edge HPC to drive climate and energy research, from now until forever. The payoff from fusion research alone would be worth it. But to peg exascale computing as a technology lynchpin for our current predicament seems completely misplaced. For the time being we’re going to have to make due with our teraflops and petaflops, and hope that when exaflops systems come online we’ll still be around for yet grander challenges.

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