At Long Last, Supercomputing Helps to Map the Poles

By Oliver Peckham

August 22, 2019

“For years,” Paul Morin wrote[*], “those of us that made maps of the Poles apologized. We apologized for the blank spaces on maps, we apologized for mountains being in the wrong place and out-of-date information.” Now, after a decade of painstaking work, the time for apologies is over. A major collaboration between universities, the U.S. government and a software company has produced an unprecedentedly accurate map of the poles – and it was made possible by supercomputing.

Paul Morin. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

Morin is the founder and director of the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, where he and dozens of other researchers help the National Science Foundation (NSF) map the Earth’s poles. Morin also liaises between the NSF and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and serves on the National Academy of Sciences’ Standing Committee on Antarctic Geographic Information. 

In short: if you’re interested in polar mapping, he’s your guy.

“It’s to serve places like this,” Morin said in a recent NSF-hosted webinar, pointing out a field camp in the dry valleys of Antarctica. “When we’re out there working, we’re sleeping in tents. […] As we were working, we didn’t have access to the kind of resources we have now. And so […] we flew around in helicopters, we had differential GPS, and we were geo-referencing air photography that was collected often in the 80’s, 90’s or the 00’s.”

Morin’s point is well-taken: for those working on or over the poles – not just researchers, but National Guard and Air Force servicemen as well – the accuracy of polar maps is a day-to-day, functional concern. (“I mean, this is the way that we get to work in the morning,” Morin said.)

The scope of the project was staggering. Antarctica is 15 million square miles – 50 percent larger than the contiguous U.S. “We can use all the standards superlatives – the highest, the driest, the coldest – but from my standpoint,” he said, “it’s just big.” But Antarctica, of course, is only one part of the equation. On the other end (quite literally): the Arctic, which is twice the size of the contiguous U.S.

Luckily, Earth-observing satellites tend to be in a polar orbit, constantly taking images of  the poles. The problem, then, became wrangling what Morin calls an “incredible fire hose of imagery” from NASA, the European Space Agency and commercial satellite operators. The imagery that the researchers were able to request allowed for pinpoint accuracy. “If you were to look at the ground in the valleys,” Morin said, “and if you were to put a single oak leaf in a specific location, you could detect the chlorophyll in that oak leaf in a 1.8 meter square pixel.”

But a single, detailed map wasn’t enough.

“You […] just don’t get the repeat that science would need, because the Earth’s surface is always changing,” Morin said of older surveying methods. “All these things – we want to be able to measure and see what the difference is.”

Then, five years ago, the U.S. gained the chairmanship of the Arctic Council and announced plans to create a robust elevation map of the Arctic. Morin and his colleagues realized that this was their opportunity to create an evolving topographic dataset for polar regions. The following year, President Obama announced a project with the NSF and the NGA to create that dataset for Alaska within one year and the Arctic within two.

With NGA’s satellite imagery contracts now at their fingertips, the newly formed team needed tools to process that massive amount of data. They turned to Ohio State University (OSU) and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. OSU provided software that allowed the team to feed stereo imagery into an HPC system and receive a digital elevation model (DEM) with very little human intervention. The NCSA, of course, provided the firepower: Blue Waters, a hybrid Cray supercomputer that delivers roughly 13 petaflops, over 1.5 petabytes of memory and about 26 petabytes of storage. Over time, the team received allocations on Stampede2 and Frontier as well.

REMA’s coverage area. Image courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

They got to work. The team produced a five-meter resolution elevation model of Alaska, then refined it to two meters. Then the Arctic: 12 percent of the Earth mapped at a two-meter resolution. Then Antarctica – another 8 percent. They produced REMA (the Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica) and, later, ArcticDEM, a tool for extracting those two-meter Arctic DEMs from Blue Waters.

Morin walked through the particulars of how granular these maps could be – individual trees being logged, ice melt, lava flows. “We now have better topography for the ice on Earth than we do for the land on Earth,” Morin said. “There really isn’t anywhere else on the planet that we just have this much repeat.”

The project was a success, and NGA and NSF have extended their collaboration and their time on Blue Waters – this time, with the aim to extend the polar mapping project to the entire surface of the Earth.

“When we began this, we just didn’t have HPC experience,” said Morin. “Last time I touched HPC before this project, the computer was a Cray-2. We needed software like Swift and Parcel for sub-scheduling – we’re doing hundreds of thousands of jobs, huge networking and automation. The community just isn’t used to this – you know, the next version of the poles is probably two petabytes! […] These projects are too big for any one agency – we’re talking public, private, multiple agencies, civilian defense… we have to bring everybody to bear on projects this large.”

To Morin, though, this is clearly still just the beginning. Morin cites a project (“Planet”) that is launching hundreds of shoebox-sized satellites for geospatial mapping. “There’s so much data coming through there that we just can’t think of how we’re going to process it even now,” he said. Of course, he does have some ideas: he recalls another project (“Iceberg”) using machine learning algorithms to detect permafrost in the Arctic.

“So,” he says excitedly, “if we can keep throwing imagery at this…”

[*] Paul Morin’s talk, “The use of NSF HPC for the Production of the Earth’s Topography,” was held last week as part of the NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure’s Cyberinfrastructure Webinar Series. To read more about the talk, click here.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Dell’s AMD-Powered Server Line Targets High-End Jobs

September 17, 2019

Dell Technologies rolled out redesigned servers this week based on AMD’s latest Epyc processor that are geared toward data-driven workloads running on increasingly popular multi-cloud platforms as well as in the HPC da Read more…

By George Leopold

Cerebras to Supply DOE with Wafer-Scale AI Supercomputing Technology

September 17, 2019

Cerebras Systems, which debuted its wafer-scale AI silicon at Hot Chips last month, has entered into a multi-year partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as part of a larger collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Better Scientific Software: Turn Your Passion into Cash

September 13, 2019

Do you know your way around scientific software and programming? You think you can contribute to the community by making scientific software better? If so, then the Better Scientific Software (BSSW) organization wants yo Read more…

By Dan Olds

AWS Solution Channel

A Guide to Discovering the Best AWS Instances and Configurations for Your HPC Workload

The flexibility and heterogeneity of HPC cloud services provide a welcome contrast to the constraints of on-premises HPC. Every HPC configuration is potentially accessible to any given workload in a well-resourced cloud HPC deployment, with vast scalability to spin up as much compute as that workload demands in any given moment. Read more…

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Intel FPGAs: More Than Just an Accelerator Card

FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) acceleration cards are not new, as they’ve been commercially available since 1984. Typically, the emphasis around FPGAs has centered on the fact that they’re programmable accelerators, and that they can truly offer workload specific hardware acceleration solutions without requiring custom silicon. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Rumors of My Death Are Still Exaggerated: The Mainframe

[Connect with Spectrum users and learn new skills in the IBM Spectrum LSF User Community.]

As of 2017, 92 of the world’s top 100 banks used mainframes. Read more…

Google’s ML Compiler Initiative Advances

September 12, 2019

Machine learning models running on everything from cloud platforms to mobile phones are posing new challenges for developers faced with growing tool complexity. Google’s TensorFlow team unveiled an open-source machine Read more…

By George Leopold

Cerebras to Supply DOE with Wafer-Scale AI Supercomputing Technology

September 17, 2019

Cerebras Systems, which debuted its wafer-scale AI silicon at Hot Chips last month, has entered into a multi-year partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as part of a larger collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDAS: ‘Automagic’ HPC With Training Wheels

September 12, 2019

High-performance computing (HPC) for research is notorious for having steep barriers to entry. For this reason, high-tech disciplines were early adopters, have Read more…

By Elizabeth Leake

Univa Brings Cloud Automation to Slurm Users with Navops Launch 2.0

September 11, 2019

Univa, the company behind Grid Engine, announced today its HPC cloud-automation platform NavOps Launch will support the popular open-source workload scheduler Slurm. With the release of NavOps Launch 2.0, “Slurm users will have access to the same cloud automation capabilities... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

When Dense Matrix Representations Beat Sparse

September 9, 2019

In our world filled with unintended consequences, it turns out that saving memory space to help deal with GPU limitations, knowing it introduces performance pen Read more…

By James Reinders

Eyes on the Prize: TACC’s Frontera Quickly Ramps up Science Agenda

September 9, 2019

Announced a year ago and officially launched a week ago, the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s Frontera – now the fastest academic supercomputer (~25 petefl Read more…

By John Russell

Quantum Roundup: IBM Goes to School, Delft Tackles Networking, Rigetti Updates

September 5, 2019

IBM today announced a new open source quantum ‘textbook’, a series of quantum education videos, and plans to expand its nascent quantum hackathon program. L Read more…

By John Russell

DARPA Looks to Propel Parallelism

September 4, 2019

As Moore’s law runs out of steam, new programming approaches are being pursued with the goal of greater hardware performance with less coding. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is launching a new programming effort aimed at leveraging the benefits of massive distributed parallelism with less sweat. Read more…

By George Leopold

Fastest Academic Supercomputer Enters Full Production at TACC, Just in Time for Hurricane Season

September 3, 2019

Frontera, the NSF supercomputer installed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in June, passed its formal acceptance last week and is now officially la Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

High Performance (Potato) Chips

May 5, 2006

In this article, we focus on how Procter & Gamble is using high performance computing to create some common, everyday supermarket products. Tom Lange, a 27-year veteran of the company, tells us how P&G models products, processes and production systems for the betterment of consumer package goods. Read more…

By Michael Feldman

Supercomputer-Powered AI Tackles a Key Fusion Energy Challenge

August 7, 2019

Fusion energy is the Holy Grail of the energy world: low-radioactivity, low-waste, zero-carbon, high-output nuclear power that can run on hydrogen or lithium. T Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

AMD Verifies Its Largest 7nm Chip Design in Ten Hours

June 5, 2019

AMD announced last week that its engineers had successfully executed the first physical verification of its largest 7nm chip design – in just ten hours. The AMD Radeon Instinct Vega20 – which boasts 13.2 billion transistors – was tested using a TSMC-certified Calibre nmDRC software platform from Mentor. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

TSMC and Samsung Moving to 5nm; Whither Moore’s Law?

June 12, 2019

With reports that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TMSC) and Samsung are moving quickly to 5nm manufacturing, it’s a good time to again ponder whither goes the venerable Moore’s law. Shrinking feature size has of course been the primary hallmark of achieving Moore’s law... Read more…

By John Russell

DARPA Looks to Propel Parallelism

September 4, 2019

As Moore’s law runs out of steam, new programming approaches are being pursued with the goal of greater hardware performance with less coding. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is launching a new programming effort aimed at leveraging the benefits of massive distributed parallelism with less sweat. Read more…

By George Leopold

Cray Wins NNSA-Livermore ‘El Capitan’ Exascale Contract

August 13, 2019

Cray has won the bid to build the first exascale supercomputer for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laborator Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

AMD Launches Epyc Rome, First 7nm CPU

August 8, 2019

From a gala event at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco yesterday (Aug. 7), AMD launched its second-generation Epyc Rome x86 chips, based on its 7nm proce Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Embraces Arm, Declares Intent to Accelerate All CPU Architectures

June 17, 2019

As the Top500 list was being announced at ISC in Frankfurt today with an upgraded petascale Arm supercomputer in the top third of the list, Nvidia announced its Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

ISC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
GOOGLE
GOOGLE
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL

Ayar Labs to Demo Photonics Chiplet in FPGA Package at Hot Chips

August 19, 2019

Silicon startup Ayar Labs continues to gain momentum with its DARPA-backed optical chiplet technology that puts advanced electronics and optics on the same chip Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Top500 Purely Petaflops; US Maintains Performance Lead

June 17, 2019

With the kick-off of the International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) in Frankfurt this morning, the 53rd Top500 list made its debut, and this one's for petafl Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Hardware That Powered the Black Hole Image

June 24, 2019

Two months ago, the first-ever image of a black hole took the internet by storm. A team of scientists took years to produce and verify the striking image – an Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Cray – and the Cray Brand – to Be Positioned at Tip of HPE’s HPC Spear

May 22, 2019

More so than with most acquisitions of this kind, HPE’s purchase of Cray for $1.3 billion, announced last week, seems to have elements of that overused, often Read more…

By Doug Black and Tiffany Trader

Chinese Company Sugon Placed on US ‘Entity List’ After Strong Showing at International Supercomputing Conference

June 26, 2019

After more than a decade of advancing its supercomputing prowess, operating the world’s most powerful supercomputer from June 2013 to June 2018, China is keep Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Qualcomm Invests in RISC-V Startup SiFive

June 7, 2019

Investors are zeroing in on the open standard RISC-V instruction set architecture and the processor intellectual property being developed by a batch of high-flying chip startups. Last fall, Esperanto Technologies announced a $58 million funding round. Read more…

By George Leopold

Intel Confirms Retreat on Omni-Path

August 1, 2019

Intel Corp.’s plans to make a big splash in the network fabric market for linking HPC and other workloads has apparently belly-flopped. The chipmaker confirmed to us the outlines of an earlier report by the website CRN that it has jettisoned plans for a second-generation version of its Omni-Path interconnect... Read more…

By Staff report

Intel Debuts Pohoiki Beach, Its 8M Neuron Neuromorphic Development System

July 17, 2019

Neuromorphic computing has received less fanfare of late than quantum computing whose mystery has captured public attention and which seems to have generated mo Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This