Why Every Day’s Earth Day When GPUs Drive Climate Modeling

by Tonie Hansen

Our GPU technology is well known for making the land, sea and life of movies like in The Hobbit and Life of Pi eye-poppingly realistic.

Earth system model by ACME
Earth system model by ACME

What you may not realize is it’s also being used by some of the world’s most powerful computers to model the very real Earth.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are using GPU-powered high performance computing to develop some of the most complex system models for climate change research using scientific and energy applications.

The lab — operated by the U.S. Department of Energy — is working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and several universities on a decade-long project known as Accelerated Climate Modeling for Energy (ACME), which launched in mid-2014.

“The overall project goal is to produce a next-generation Earth system model which improves prediction skill and takes best advantage of the unique computational resources in the DOE complex,” said Peter Thornton, Oak Ridge land modeler and ACME council member and land model task team leader.

More Processing Muscle

Oak Ridge and the DOE have long been active in the community Earth system modeling. With ACME, scientists have the opportunity to develop models designed to take advantage of the advances in computing capability.

The extra muscle provided by supercomputer architecture means bigger simulations that enable more accurate climate predictions. That’s where GPUs come in. They’re the only technology that would allow scientists to do simulations this complex in a timely way.

As GPUs advance in performance, speed and energy efficiency, they’re driving the standards for high performance computing. That’s why the DOE is building GPU-accelerated supercomputers.

Oak Ridge’s “Summit” and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s “Sierra” systems will use our Tesla GPU accelerators and NVLink high-speed interconnect technology on next-generation IBM POWER servers. The Tesla accelerators are specialized for complex computing tasks rather than graphics.

Once operating, these systems will achieve between 100 and 300 petaflops of peak performance. That’s about 2-5X the performance available on today’s fastest supercomputers.

Key Climate Questions

The ACME team will develop models that get to the heart of key climate science questions, using DOE resources, including Oak Ridge’s 27-petaflop GPU-powered Titan supercomputer.

ACME will develop the physics of ice-ocean interactions at the ice sheet margins. Image courtesy of Amanda Graham.
ACME will develop the physics of ice-ocean interactions at the ice sheet margins. Image by Amanda Graham.

At the core of ACME’s work is building models rather than data processing. The goal is to provide “a source of reliable climate change prediction information which can help to inform decision-making,” Thornton said.

Models include a focus on the water cycle, including how precipitation patterns change, and how this will evolve during the next 40 years in a warming climate.

Others will address the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, and its contribution to the rise of sea levels. And they’ll assess how carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles help regulate climate system feedbacks.

“As we move toward predictive aspects of human systems, the modeling and model outputs will become more directly relevant to policy makers,” Thornton said.

With newly refined climate models, scientists can provide the insight needed to plan for severe weather systems that bring drought, hurricanes, freezing and flooding.