Computing for a Better World

By Markus Henkel

December 17, 2009

Hamburg, Germany, is known worldwide for its harbor, its red-light district, the Reeperbahn, and the fresh sea breeze. On December 10, Hamburg added another feature of worldwide interest when an IBM supercomputer devoted to climate research called Blizzard was inaugurated, just in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

The German Federal Minister for Education and Research, Prof. Dr. Annette Schavan, and the Mayor of Hamburg, Ole von Beust, officiated the inauguration, which was closely watched in Germany.

60 times as powerful

Housed at the German High Performance Computing Centre for Climate and Earth System Research (DKRZ), Blizzard enables even more accurate prediction of future climate changes. With a peak performance of 158 teraflops, Blizzard is about 60 times faster than DKRZ’s previous system, an NEC SX6 supercomputer, and therefore one of the world’s biggest supercomputers. Blizzard will be able to model tornadoes and small sea eddies. An essential part of the results it generates will be used in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But is the climate really important enough to warrant such a large system? The weather is usually only of importance to you if you are standing in front of your wardrobe wondering what to wear or if you are planning your next holiday. Is it cold or warm? Will it be rainy or windy? Often you are only paying attention to exceptional weather events like heat waves or storms. With the increasing number of exceptional weather events, the public interest in weather has grown. Blizzard will collect and analyze global as well as local data — not only to help us choose suitable clothes, but also to be prepared for strong climate changes. As an example, the supercomputer is able to more exactly pinpoint tsunamis like the one caused by an earthquake near Sumatra and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

A mecca for international climate modeling

The IBM supercomputer, which has received funding of 35 million euros from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, will calculate climate models from all over the world with more spatial precision than before. This will enable researchers to predict regional weather phenomena more precisely. “The new climate computer in Hamburg is an excellent example for the top German position in climate research,” said German federal Minister Annette Schavan. “Politics is impossible without research. Research justifies our decisions.”

In addition to atmospheric changes, the new supercomputer can calculate processes in the ice, soil and flora as well as their impact on the carbon distribution and the greenhouse effect. “Hamburg is now a mecca for international climate modeling since we offer unique computing capacity as well as research facilities such as the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and the KlimaCampus,” explains Prof. Dr. Thomas Ludwig, scientific director of DKRZ.

The eye-catcher: The archive

In additional to Blizzard, the DKRZ uses one of the most powerful archives in the field of high performance computing. It is able to record more than 60 petabytes or 60,000 terabytes of data — roughly equal to 13 million DVDs. 56 robot arms operate the 65,000 magnetic tape cassettes on which the world`s biggest archive of climate data will be stored. The supercomputer Blizzard weighs about 15 tons and its components are connected via 50 kilometres of cable.

Thomas Ludwig, an expert for storage systems and energy efficiency, plans to make the supercomputer even more efficient and sustainable. With a professorship for energy efficiency of high performance computers at the University of Hamburg, Thomas Ludwig is a pioneer in Germany.

Half of Blizzard’s power will be used by its shareholders: Max Planck Institute, University of Hamburg, GKKS Research Center Geesthacht and Alfred Wegener Institute. The rest of the computing time is distributed among approximately 100 research groups located in all parts of Germany.

About the Author

Markus Henkel is a geodesist, science writer and lives in Hamburg, Germany. He writes about supercomputing, environmental protection and clinical medicine. For more information, email him at info@laengsynt.de or visit the Web site: http://laengsynt.de.

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