NCSA Joins Effort to Create Permafrost Analysis Tool

By Staff report

October 28, 2019

Permafrost, where the ground is frozen for years on end, stretches across nine million square miles of the Earth. Moreover, global permafrost stores around 1,600 gigatons of carbon: nearly twice the amount stored in the atmosphere. As climate change begins to rapidly thaw the Earth’s permafrost, precisely monitoring the extent and degradation of permafrost is more important than ever. Now, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding a major initiative to do just that – and supercomputing will play a major role.

The $3 million NSF grant, drawn from the Navigating the New Arctic initiative, will establish the Permafrost Discovery Gateway, which aims to support scientific research into changes in Arctic permafrost by providing “one of the most accurate and high-resolution permafrost documentation efforts ever.”

The project is a massive collaboration involving the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ohio State University, the University of Connecticut, the Arctic Data Center at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the Alfred Wegener Institute, NASA, the Center for Climate and Health at Alaska Pacific University, and the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota. Crucially, it will also involve the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“NCSA will play a critical role in transforming the experimental work done using artificial intelligence to detect permafrost features into operational workflows that are capable of providing accurate information about the changing Arctic,” said Aiman Soliman, an NCSA research scientist and co-principal investigator of the project.

NCSA will provide the project with a component called Clowder, which supports data management, curation and analysis and recently won an NSF Cyberinfrastructure for Sustained Scientific Innovation award. The Arctic Data Center will use Clowder to help create and apply data products from satellite data and community-created machine learning models that identify permafrost in the satellite images.

“NCSA strives to bridge and amplify the efforts it supports, identifying common needs around data, software, and computation and through that providing solutions that leverage activity from many different efforts towards a common more robust and sustainable long term solution. Clowder is one of those examples,” said Kenton McHenry, deputy director of scientific software and applications at NCSA.

The researchers hope that this new tool will make permafrost analysis more accessible for users without access to extensive technical expertise or supercomputers.

“I think it’s unlike anything out there,” said Anna Liljedahl, a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the project lead. “Our combination of resources within the gateway can finally help people keep up with the rapidly changing Arctic landscape as it is transforming and at a scale that is relevant to people.”

Read the NCSA’s press release on the development here.

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