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Super disasters

Natural disasters have a way of shaping the course of human history. From the volcanic eruption that decimated Pompeii to the storms that buffeted the Spanish Armada in 1588, these deadly events are often burned into humanity’s collective memory.

<strong>Mount Vesuvius erupted</strong> in 79 CE, spewing ash and pumice, followed by an avalanche of mud that destroyed the village of Pompeii. Could an early warning system saved those trapped by the explosion? Courtesy Andrew Mason. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>While it’s impossible to stop these disasters, modern high-performance computing (HPC) techniques allow scientists to better predict and prepare for them—and hopefully save lives. To that end, let’s explore some of 2018’s biggest natural disaster developments in HPC.

Hurricane strength is overblown

Hurricanes have the power to flatten houses and reshape entire communities, and they seem to be getting worse. Climate change is having a direct effect on hurricane strength, which can help explain the increasingly destructive storms the US has seen over the past few years.

Visualizing safer cities. University of Texas engineering professor Clint Dawson is working with high-resolution visualizations to decrease the uncertainty of hurricanes. Courtesy The University of Texas at Austin.

With so much at stake, hurricane trackers often use models that over-predict the power of a particular storm so that people take it seriously. To learn more about how hurricanes actually develop, Clint Dawson of The University of Texas at Austin created a model that more accurately shows how strong a storm will be. Using a series of partial differential equations, Dawson’s model is able to predict wind and water forces.

Of course, a higher level of accuracy doesn’t equate to a perfect prediction. Science is about finding the truth, but safety is often about preparing for the worst. Always follow evacuation orders regardless of what other models say.

Mountain mayhem

Predicting weather is hard enough without having to factor in the way mountains can change a storm. This was the issue facing MeteoSwiss, a part of the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs.

<strong>Switzerland’s extreme topography</strong> means sudden changes in weather patterns. It takes an HPC numerical forecasting model to keep up.  Courtesy Kabelleger/David Gubler/(banbilder.ch). <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>The problem with predicting mountain weather is that the many nooks and crannies in the terrain are extremely hard to model. To solve this, MeteoSwiss used the HPC forecast model COSMO-1. With a resolution of 1.1 kilometers, COSMO-1 has the highest resolution of any weather predictor in the Alpine region.

Another model, COSMO-E,  has a lower resolution, but calculates the probability of a weather event occurring within the next five days. This model was even able to warn residents about heavy rainfall the day before a landslide in 2014.

Staying alive

SMART response. Purdue University researchers have developed an online platform that enables first responders to monitor emergency situations using tweets and Instagram posts. Courtesy Purdue University..

During a major disaster, one of the biggest concerns first responders have is keeping lines of communication open. Storms damage critical infrastructure, and often people have no way to call for help. Researchers at Purdue University think that social media might be the solution. 

The Social Media Analytics and Reporting Toolkit (SMART) creates an easily-navigable platform for first responders to search YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites. By making the massive amount of social media data easier to search, officials will be able to find those who need help the most.   

Blowing in the wind

The US has some of the worst tornados in the entire world. The country’s topography is to blame for the average 1,250 tornados every year, and climate change may only make this worse. To better prepare citizens, Penn State researchers worked to find a better way to predict these storms.

<strong>Take shelter.</strong> Tornadoes are quick to form, hard to predict, and cause extensive damage. Researchers at Penn State want to use high-resolution models to increase warning times from 14 to 30 minutes. Courtesy NOAA.Current tornado modeling systems are only capable of giving people 3-14 minute head starts before the storm hits. While this is certainly better than nothing, a maximum of 14 minutes isn’t much time to evacuate large areas such as a stadium.

To increase this timeline, researchers created the Penn State Center for Advanced Data Assimilation and Predictability Techniques (ADAPT). By studying how past tornados have developed, the scientists hope to be able to eventually give people up to 30 minutes of warning before a big storm hits.

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Coastal craziness

One of the hardest parts of hurricane prediction is understanding how it will affect the ocean. These bodies of water are so large and complex that mapping their future movements is extremely difficult. However, doing so could save lives.

<strong>Storm surge forecasting</strong> makes coastal areas safer to live in, by helping engineers design levees and residents decide how to react. Courtesy David Baird. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-SA 2.0)</a>Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are working to better predict the flow of coastal water during a hurricane. The software tool ADCIRC allows scientists to better understand what happens to a coastline during a major weather event. Not only does this allow for a better warning system, but it also helps with the design and construction of levee systems.

Natural disasters may be unavoidable, but HPC is helping us better understand them. The citizens of Pompeii and the sailors of the Spanish Armada could have only dreamt of these interventions, and we owe it to them to continue their development.

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