Supercomputer Research Uses Earthquakes to Model the Planet

By Oliver Peckham

March 31, 2022

The deepest hole ever dug by humans reached just over seven and a half miles into the planet — less than 1/1000th of the Earth’s nearly 8,000-mile diameter. Understanding the composition of our planet is, therefore, a challenging proposition that predominantly relies on the extrapolation of proxy metrics. Prominent among these metrics are seismic waves, which can be used to conduct “seismic tomography” on the planet, much like how a CT or MRI scan infers the structure of a living organism. As highlighted in a recent article from the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), this field has experienced rapid advances in recent years thanks to the leveraging of supercomputing power.

“We are at a stage where we need to avoid approximations and corrections in our imaging techniques to construct these models of the Earth’s interior,” said Ebru Bozdag, an assistant professor in the Geophysics Department at the Colorado School of Mines, in an interview with TACC’s Aaron Dubrow. Bozdag has been at the forefront of a new wave (no pun intended) of seismic tomography — a shift away from “ray theory” seismic tomography (which treated seismic waves like light rays) and toward “full-waveform inversion,” which uses numerical simulation to model wave propagation.

Bozdag led the development of the first full-waveform inversion model in 2016, and in 2020, released a successor that added new functionality like subduction zones to the model. “We showed the feasibility of using full 3D wave simulations and data sensitivities to seismic parameters at the global scale in our 2016 and 2020 papers. Now, it’s time to use better parameterization to describe the physics of the Earth’s interior in the inverse problem,” she said.

Just a year after that second model, Bozdag and her colleagues have been discussing their work to incorporate attenuation of seismic waves, whereby those waves lose energy as they diffuse through the planet, and azimuthal anisotropy, which describes how wave speeds depend on the azimuth of propagation.

This new work — which leverages data from hundreds of earthquakes — has been powered by TACC’s Frontera system, a 23.5-Linpack petaflops Dell system that ranked 13th on the fall 2021 Top500 list, and the Marconi100 system at Italian supercomputing Cineca, a 21.6-Linpack petaflops IBM system that ranked 18th. “With access to Frontera, publicly available data from all around the world, and the power of our modeling tools, we’ve started approaching the continental-scale resolution in our global full wave inversion models,” Bozdag said.

Next up for Bozdag’s team: incorporating more detail on mantle plumes (a convection mechanism in Earth’s interior) and water in the upper mantle.

To learn more about this research — such as how this research is being used to understand Mars’ interior, as well — read the reporting from TACC’s Aaron Dubrow here.

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