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Worried about climate change?

The UK is steaming under record-high temperatures, hundreds died from flooding and landslides after torrential rains in Japan, and wildfires rage inside the Arctic Circle. Climate change means an increase in ‘natural’ disasters --and it isn’t going away any time soon. But scientists are calling on the power of high-performance computing to help us cope.

1. Hurricane helper

Predicting storm surge. Carolina researchers have developed a software package called ADCIRC, which predicts how ocean waters will move and how high they will get. Courtesy UNC Chapel Hill.

People who live in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to increased hurricane activity. But new technologies can help residents and local authorities better prepare for powerful storms.

When a hurricane is on the horizon, marine scientists activate advanced computer models like the University of North Carolina’s ADCIRC. A powerful computing cluster at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) enables real-time predictions of when and where storm surge will arrive, how far inland it will penetrate, and even how long it will last. In the hands of emergency management crews, that information can save lives.

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2. Going underground

Thirsty workBerkeley Lab researcher Erica Woodburn is working on an advanced hydrologic model to study how climate change might affect California watersheds in the future. Courtesy Berkeley Lab.

If it’s not too much water, then it’s too little. Uneven precipitation and declining snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is putting California’s water supply at risk. Groundwater reserves can reduce that risk, but scientists don’t always know where and how groundwater moves, or even how much of it exists.  

Scientists try to predict future water levels by looking at data from past years. But the extreme weather caused by climate change means historical patterns may no longer be reliable indicators of future water availability.

That’s why scientist Erica Woodburn of Berkeley Lab is using high-performance computing to simulate how water moves from the atmosphere to surface and ground waters. These more accurate models allow researchers to experiment with different scenarios and can help guide water management policies, ensuring a continuous water supply for residential and agricultural use.

3. Keeping forests green

<strong>Drones collect </strong>data that becomes interactive GIS applications to protect Rocky Mountain trees threatened by global warming. Courtesy Tyson Swetnam.A walk in a mountain forest is a great way to relieve stress. But that strategy may not work too when the trees are turning brown from lack of water. When forest temperatures rise by just one degree Celsius, streamflow can drop by up to seven percent, cutting off vital water supplies to growing trees.

That’s why scientists like Cyverse’s Tyson Swetnam are using unmanned aerial drones to collect real-time biomass data in Colorado forests. The resulting 3D models are helping scientists figure out just how dire the situation really is and what they can do to help.

4. IceBridge

Operation IceBridge is an airborne mission that maps the ice sheet and glaciers of Antarctica, as well as the surrounding sea ice. Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 

The 5.4 million square miles of Antarctica need a larger solution than a handful of drones. That’s why NASA’s Operation IceBridge flies P3 aircrafts back and forth across the ice caps, using three types of radar to survey the thickness of the ice below.

Because researchers fly over the same areas every year, they can track changes in sea and land ice. The processed data is used to create images of literal slices of the snow, ice, and bedrock, providing scientists with valuable data on how polar ice is changing in a warming world.

5. Looking to the past to glimpse the future

One way to better cope with the effects of current climate change may be to learn more about previous periods of extreme change. The Eocene epoch (56 to 34 million years ago) was the warmest interval of the past 66 million years, but it ended in a period of cooling.

During this time, Australia completed its separation from Antarctica. The resulting change in ocean circulation patterns could have caused the end of this ‘hothouse’ period. But some researchers think declining levels of carbon dioxide may have been to blame.

Scientists at Utrecht University and Purdue University used climate models to reconstruct a timeline of temperature throughout the Eocene. After four years of continuous computing, their simulations confirmed that the cooling was caused by decreased greenhouse gases.

Lead author Margot Cramwinckel says, “Understanding the drivers behind long-term climate change is important in order to predict the development of future climate change.”

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