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How supercomputers are improving climate modeling
Blog...How supercomputers are improving climate modeling

How supercomputers are improving climate modeling

Ecology News
woman standing in front of computer processors
In this article, we delve into what supercomputers are, their applications, and why they are a valuable tool in the fight against climate change.
Ecology News
woman standing in front of computer processors

Supercomputers are an exciting development in the field of technology and have been heralded for their enormous potential when it comes to advancing scientific and medical research. However, they’re also incredibly valuable when it comes to the fight against climate change. Supercomputers are helping to improve our climate modeling capabilities, allowing us to better understand and predict climate patterns and climatic events. 

👉 In this article we delve into what supercomputers are, their applications, and why they are a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. 

What is a supercomputer?

A supercomputer is the name given to a high-performance mainframe computer, it is a highly advanced machine, designed to achieve maximum performance levels in processing speed and efficiency. These systems are the fastest computers in the world and are different from the standard computers we use for everyday tasks. Supercomputers are built to tackle extremely complex and data-heavy problems that regular computers can't handle. 

💡 Supercomputers can be as much as a million times more powerful than the average desktop computer!

Unlike traditional computers which come with a single central processing unit (CPU), supercomputers combine thousands of processors, allowing them to process billions of calculations every second. These CPUs are grouped into computation nodes and memory storage. Large numbers of these nodes can be linked to solving problems via parallel processing. 

There are two different methods of parallel processing: symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) and massively parallel processing (MPP). The main difference between the two is that in an SMP system, the processors share the same memory architecture, whereas in an MPP system, each processor has its own resources. 

Parallel processing enables the supercomputers to manage multiple tasks at the same time, unlike traditional computers which process tasks sequentially. This function is what allows supercomputers to handle large datasets and conduct intricate calculations. 

Supercomputers are also known for their remarkable speed, measured in FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second). This measurement indicates their ability to perform an incredibly high number of calculations very quickly, a capacity far beyond what standard computers can achieve. Essentially, the greater the FLOPS value the more powerful the supercomputer. 

This high processing capability is what’s so exciting about supercomputers. They have enormous potential to advance scientific research by handling computations that would otherwise be nearly impossible. 

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What types of supercomputers are there?

Supercomputers come in various types, tailored for different needs and applications. Let’s take a closer look at the different types

Tightly connected clusters 

These clusters are made up of groups of interconnected computers that work collaboratively on a common task. They come in four different configurations:

  • Two-node clusters, which involve a pair of computers linked together.
  • Multi-node clusters, consisting of several computers connected in a network.
  • Director-based clusters, where a central computer, the director, coordinates the tasks among the other computers in the cluster.
  • Massively parallel clusters, which are large-scale clusters with many computers working in parallel.

These cluster types are widely used in scientific research, where large-scale data processing and complex simulations are required.

Special-purpose computers 

These are designed for a specific function and are not suitable for general-purpose computing. They focus their resources on solving a particular problem. A famous example is IBM's Deep Blue, it’s a chess-playing supercomputer. These systems are often used in fields where highly specialized tasks are performed, such as cryptographic analysis or specific types of scientific research.

Commodity supercomputers 

These are made up of standard personal computers connected through high-bandwidth, fast Local Area Networks (LANs). They use parallel computing, with the interconnected computers collectively working on a single task. This type of supercomputer is often used in environments where cost-effectiveness is important, such as in academic research or small-scale industrial applications.

Virtual supercomputers

These operate primarily in cloud environments. By combining many virtual machines on processors within a cloud data center, they offer a highly efficient computing platform. Virtual supercomputers can be scaled up or down according to computational needs, making them useful for businesses and researchers who require flexible, high-powered computing resources without the need for physical infrastructure.

Supercomputers with vector processors

These supercomputers have CPUs capable of processing a wide variety of data simultaneously, rather than handling each item individually. This allows for simultaneous processing. These processors are particularly effective for tasks involving large-scale numerical computations, such as in weather forecasting.

What are supercomputers being used for?

Supercomputers are an extremely exciting field of innovation. Their potential applications are almost endless, and their incredible computational power is already being used to tackle some of the most challenging and data-intensive problems. Let’s take a closer look at the potential uses of supercomputers: 

  • Scientific research - the ability of supercomputers to conduct complex simulations and analyses makes them useful in scientific research fields. For example, in the field of quantum mechanics they are being used to simulate the behavior of particles at subatomic levels, and in astronomy, they are helping to model galactic formations and study the evolution of the universe.
  • Medical and pharmaceutical applications - One of the most exciting applications of supercomputing is its potential to advance medical research and treatments. For example, in healthcare, supercomputers are helping to decode human genomes, leading to breakthroughs in personalized medicine. They are also being used to accelerate drug discovery by simulating molecular interactions which reduces the need for early-stage clinical trials, speeding up the development of effective treatments.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning - Supercomputers are at the forefront of AI and machine learning, processing vast datasets to train algorithms in tasks ranging from natural language processing to predictive analytics. This capability is helping to develop advanced AI applications
  • Financial modeling - In finance, supercomputers are being employed for high-frequency trading, where they analyze market data in real time to make quick trading decisions. They also play a role in risk management, simulating various economic scenarios to help financial institutions mitigate potential risks.
  • Engineering and design - By using supercomputers for simulations in areas like aerodynamics, automotive design, and structural analysis, the need for physical prototypes is reduced, saving time and resources in the design process.
  • Energy exploration - In the energy sector, supercomputers help in exploring new energy sources, optimizing extraction processes, and managing energy distribution networks more efficiently.
  • Climate modeling - Because supercomputers can process vast amounts of environmental data to simulate climate patterns, both current and future, they are quickly becoming an indispensable tool when it comes to climate modeling. This modeling is crucial for understanding climate change and predicting weather patterns, which helps inform decisions about environmental policies and strategies. 👉 In the next section we’ll dive deeper into how supercomputers are revolutionizing our approach to understanding and combating climate change, highlighting the important role they play in climate science.
computer processors in glass cabinets

First up, what is climate modelling?

Before we dive into the details of how supercomputers are being applied to climate modeling, let’s start with a quick overview of what climate modeling is. 

Climate modeling is a scientific method used to understand and forecast the Earth's climate. It involves creating a computer simulation of the planet's climatic systems, which include the atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice caps. Climate models use mathematical equations to simulate the physical and chemical interactions within these systems. By inputting various environmental parameters - such as greenhouse gas concentrations, solar radiation, and land use changes - climate models can help us to predict how these factors influence global and regional climate patterns. These models range from simple representations focusing on specific climate elements to hugely complex models that encompass the entire climate system and its interactions.

Climate modeling is incredibly useful as it allows us to project future climate scenarios based on different assumptions about human activities and natural processes. This helps us to understand potential future changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, sea level rise, and extreme weather events. 

However, climate models are not just predictive tools, they also act as virtual laboratories for scientists to test hypotheses about climate dynamics and the impacts of climate change. By analyzing past and present climate data, these models improve our understanding of climate variability and change, allowing us to develop more effective climate policies and strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

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How can supercomputers improve climate modelling?

Supercomputers improve climate modeling by providing the computational power necessary to process huge amounts of climatic data and run complex simulations with greater precision and speed. Their ability to perform fast calculations and handle large-scale computational tasks leads to more accurate and detailed predictions in climate models.

Firstly, supercomputers allow for the input of greater detail in climate models. This means they can simulate climate processes and interactions more accurately, such as the formation of clouds or ocean currents. With supercomputers, models can cover smaller geographic areas in more detail than was previously possible, providing a more granular understanding of regional climate variations and impacts. This level of detail is important for local and regional planning, as it offers more precise forecasts of harmful climate events like hurricanes, droughts, or floods.

Secondly, supercomputers enable the processing of extremely large datasets, including historical climate data and real-time environmental observations. This means that researchers can develop more comprehensive and data-driven climate models. By analyzing such huge datasets, supercomputers help identify long-term climate trends and variabilities, improving the reliability of climate projections.

Another strength of supercomputers is that they allow us to run multiple simulations at the same time. This parallel processing enables us to explore various climate scenarios, including extreme events and different greenhouse gas emission trajectories. Researchers can run simulations with different assumptions and parameters, providing a range of possible future outcomes. This helps us to better understand the uncertainties and risks associated with climate change depending on the different variables.

Additionally, supercomputers are helping to develop more sophisticated algorithms for climate modeling. They support advanced computational techniques like machine learning, which can be used to improve the accuracy of climate predictions and to identify previously unrecognized patterns and correlations in climate data.

The potential of supercomputing when it comes to climate modeling is hugely exciting and there are already many supercomputers around the world that are already being utilized for this exact purpose. Read on to find out more. 

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Real-life examples of supercomputers being used to combat climate change

Supercomputers around the world are already being used for climate modeling, offering real-life examples of their critical role in understanding and predicting climate change.

One notable example is the Earth Simulator in Japan, which was the world's fastest supercomputer when first launched. It has been used extensively for climate research, simulating global atmospheric and oceanic conditions to study long-term climate cycles, predict extreme weather events, and assess global warming scenarios. Its high-resolution models have provided valuable insights into how climate change impacts different parts of the world.

In the United States, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) operates several supercomputers for climate and weather modeling. One of their systems, named Cheyenne, is notable as it has been specifically designed for carrying out complex climate simulations. This supercomputer helps scientists understand how small changes in atmospheric conditions can lead to significant climatic shifts. Cheyenne has been instrumental in advancing research in areas such as hurricane prediction, solar impacts on climate, and the dynamics of Arctic sea ice.

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) also uses supercomputers for both weather forecasting and climate modeling. Their supercomputing facilities are among the largest in Europe and are being used for meteorological purposes, running sophisticated models that provide data for global climate research and environmental monitoring.

In the United Kingdom, the Met Office operates one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world dedicated to weather and climate, known as the Cray XC40 supercomputing system. This supercomputer is used for a wide range of environmental science applications, including detailed climate predictions and assessments of the potential impacts of climate change in specific regions.

Looking to the future, the European Union has recently approved plans to develop two new supercomputing infrastructures which will be used in part for climate modeling. The first supercomputer is being installed in Germany and is known as JUPITER. Once the supercomputer is up and running it will be the most powerful computer in Europe, and the first to achieve exascale performance (ie. the capability to carry out over one billion calculations per second!). A second EU exascale supercomputer has also been announced and will be hosted in France. These powerful computing systems will enhance the ability of scientists to conduct highly detailed and comprehensive climate analyses and will be available to researchers from 2025. 

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The environmental impact of supercomputers

The value that supercomputers bring in terms of advancing our understanding of scientific research, medical science, and climate modeling cannot be understated. By processing vast amounts of data at speeds that were unimaginable not long ago, they allow researchers to advance their knowledge and research at a much quicker pace, contributing significantly to our ability to respond to global challenges. 

However, this incredible processing power comes with notable environmental costs. Supercomputers require extensive data centers, which consume large amounts of electricity for both operation and cooling systems. These data centers are often powered by non-renewable energy sources, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the physical infrastructure of these data centers can be vast, occupying significant land space and involving the use of materials that carry their environmental footprints.

Despite these concerns, the future of supercomputing holds promise for reducing its environmental impact. Increasingly, there is a push towards powering these data centers with renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, thereby significantly reducing their carbon footprint. Innovations in energy-efficient processors and cooling technologies are also on the rise, aiming to lower the energy consumption of supercomputers. 

Moreover, the work performed by supercomputers often contributes directly to environmental protection and sustainability efforts. For example, better climate modeling can lead to more effective strategies for combating climate change, while advances in medical research can improve public health outcomes with less resource-intensive methods. Therefore, while we must work to reduce their environmental impacts, supercomputers also play an important role when it comes to creating a more sustainable and healthier planet.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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