PSU Researchers Use Gaia Computer To Model Climate Change

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A large research grant has been awarded to Oregon’s Portland State University (PSU) to fund climate change research. PSU researchers will use the money—about $350,000—to build a powerful supercomputer to help them unlock some of the most crucial puzzles of global warming.

The high-performance machine, dubbed the “Gaia,” will pack 20 teraflops of raw computing power, good for an imposing 20 million million calculations per second.

While it won’t be among the most powerful supercomputers in the world—those now operate at a ‘petaflop’ level—it will be ten times more powerful than anything the campus has yet seen. This enormous computing capability affords climate researchers several key advantages.


Climate Change Modeling

The state-of-the-art equipment will enhance the scope of research and development in PSU’s environmental engineering and civil engineering program. The potential benefits are many, from reduced research wait times to the ability to solve more complex problems—just the sort of riddles found in the study of climate science.

The Gaia will promote greater accuracy and precision in ecosystems modeling. That means climatologists could make more targeted predictions about, for example, what climate change might do to the rivers in Oregon’s Willamette sub-basin, or how it will magnify wildfires in the state’s western forests.

Award-winning air pollution expert and PSU professor Dr. Jim Pankow says he will use the Gaia to explore the role of microscopic pollutants and toxic compounds in varied climate change scenarios. Understanding how different chemical pollutants influence the global atmosphere can show us how to minimize unwanted impacts.

“We’re not running climate models that predict what temperatures will be in 2050, but we’re running a lot of simulations that provide input on certain models,” Pankow explained.


Beyond Climate Science

The computer will also support extensive analyses of the energy efficiency of local and national transportation systems. With this application, the technology could facilitate a systems-based approach to transportation planning and energy management by simulating the influence of pro-efficiency measures.

The advanced computer will also be shared with other departments at the public research university. Chemistry students and faculty plan to use it for complex pharmacological research, and geologists will plug in problems related to volcanic magma flows.

“It’s a powerful computer. It’s transformational for PSU,” Pankow said.

The Gaia should be up and running by the end of 2013, with an additional sweep of upgrades scheduled for the beginning of 2015.

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