iSGTW Feature - Polar Grid: entering the ice age

Feature - Polar Grid: entering the ice age

Polar grid will link the North and South Poles to teraflop facilities in the U.S., providing the massive power required to fill the gap in understanding of ice cap behavior in a changing climate.
Images courtesy of Polar Grid

"Things that took 100,000 years to change are now changing in ten years," says Geoffrey Fox. "This was a relatively sleepy field. It has come rapidly to the forefront."

Fox is director of the Community Grids Lab at Indiana University's Pervasive Technology Labs. A computer scientist by trade, he's been swept into the fever of ice-sheet science.

"In the last ten years something has happened," he says. "Ten years ago the ice sheets weren't melting. Now they are. And we don't know why."

The need for information is critical. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report explicitly stated that understanding of ice flow dynamics is limited, that there is no consensus on the magnitude of ice sheet influence, and that there is an urgent need to improve the models being used to predict their effect on ocean levels.

In response to this need, Fox and ice scientist Linda Hayden of Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina, hatched a plan.

Called Polar Grid, the planned project would advance cyberinfrastructure, empower minority and smaller universities, and provide scientists with a gateway to teraflops of power: enough to drive new and improved high-performance simulations and enable measurement and prediction of ice sheet response to climate change and effect on ocean levels.

Most scientific models predict that polar ice sheets will respond slowly to climate change. Yet these models do not account for the sudden changes taking place at our poles. Sometime in the last ten years, the melt-rate heated up.
Images courtesy of Polar Grid

The tip of the cyber-iceberg

Very recently, their planning paid off.

In August 2007 Polar Grid received a US$1.96 million National Science Foundation grant.

Planning is already underway to create a grid that will span the North and South Poles, linking major facilities at Indiana University and Elizabeth City State University with universities and institutions across the United States.

The Polar Grid team will create a computer grid comprising a 64-core cluster of rugged laptops and solar-powered components-deployed in the polar field-and two large-scale clusters on the mainland-17 teraflops at IU and 5 teraflops at ECSU.

The clusters will be easily accessible through a science gateway, using Web 2.0 and portal approaches designed to make high-performance computers easier to use.

The result? Real-time analysis of changes in the polar ice sheets; better quality predictions rendered in shorter periods of time.

"It will be possible to collect, examine and analyze data-and then use the results to optimize data collection strategies-all during the course of a single expedition," says Fox.

The long wait for answers-often until next summer's expedition-has been side-stepped.

Democratizing science

Another important component of Polar Grid is its role in democratizing science, says Fox. The project will also boost computing power at the historically disadvantaged Elizabeth City State University.

"Cyberinfrastructure helps to level the playing field," says Fox. "We can link to a variety of universities, allowing people who have not previously been participants in science to join in more easily and with fewer barriers than before. We can tap the unused human potential of smaller and minority institutions."

The Polar Grid research team hope to start installing equipment in late fall.

- Cristy Burne, iSGTW