This article is published in the November 2007 issue.

NCAR: Advancing Scientific Discovery to Benefit Society

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center, primarily sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and devoted to service, research, and education in atmospheric and related sciences. NCAR’s mission is to understand the behavior of the atmosphere and associated physical, biological and social systems and to support and extend the capabilities of the university community and broader national and international scientific communities by providing access to large-scale facilities, tools, and expertise. NCAR’s activities as an integrator, innovator and community builder contribute to the development of predictive Earth system science that can help sustain Earth’s habitability, improve environmental quality, safeguard human health, reduce the impacts of natural disasters, and increase economic productivity.

NCAR traces its roots back to 1956, when the National Academy of Sciences convened a committee of distinguished scientists to investigate the state of meteorology. Noting the size and complexity of atmospheric problems and the inadequate resources for solving them, the committee recommended an exponential increase in support for basic research. Coupled with new funding, the committee planned to establish a national facility for atmospheric research to be operated by a consortium of universities with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Four years later, the National Center for Atmospheric Research opened its doors in Boulder, Colorado, as an NSF program managed by the nonprofit University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

Computational and Information Systems Laboratory

NCAR has a rich history in supercomputing. It was home to the first commercially available Cray 1, and has kept pace not only with computing technology, but also with the rapidly growing networking and data storage needs of the atmospheric sciences community. Making this happen is NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory (CISL), which provides a broad range of resources and services, from top-end supercomputers and applied mathematics and modeling, to advanced computer science research.

This year, CISL replaced its IBM POWER4 supercomputer with an IBM POWER5+ system that has more than doubled the total computing capacity at NCAR. And, with the mid-2008 arrival of an IBM POWER6 system—named bluefire—NCAR anticipates achieving a computation rate exceeding 60 teraflops (a teraflops is one trillion floating point operations per second). Each of these upgrades provides the community with world-class capabilities to meet advanced scientific computational needs. Once installed, bluefire will be the most powerful computer dedicated to model development for the Earth sciences.

Bluefire will be used to develop, tune, and validate the next generation of climate and weather models, and it will run a significant portion of NCAR’s simulations for a key international state-of-the-climate scientific document, the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

NCAR is a full participating member of the NSF-sponsored TeraGrid, a partnership of people, resources and services that enables discovery in U.S. science and engineering. Through coordinated policy, grid software, and high-performance network connections, the TeraGrid integrates a distributed set of high-capability computational, data-management and visualization resources to make research more productive. With Science Gateway collaborations and education programs, the TeraGrid also connects and broadens scientific communities.

CISL deployed NCAR’s computational TeraGrid node in July, allowing researchers with NSF computing grants access to 4.5 million processor-hours of BlueGene/L computing annually. The system, named frost, requires a fraction of the power and space of most production systems and is operated in partnership with the University of Colorado. With frost, the TeraGrid boasts more than 250 teraflops of computing capacity, and more than 30 petabytes (30 quadrillion bytes) of online and archival data storage, with rapid access and retrieval over high-performance networks.

Enabling Science

In addition to hardware, networking and infrastructure, NCAR is also a leader in Earth system model development, simulations and visualization.

The Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, one of several NCAR collaborative partnerships, is a next-generation weather prediction system designed to serve both operational forecasting and atmospheric research needs. NCAR scientists, supporting the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are using real-time data from an advanced version of WRF to simulate the most destructive features of hurricanes. This research will enhance model projections of potential storm damage and improve warnings of floods, power outages, and road blockages. The WRF model generated real-time predictions of the paths and intensities of all 2007 named storms. WRF partners include NOAA, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the University of Oklahoma. The Advanced Research WRF (ARW) is currently the most widely used model of its kind, with more than 4,900 users in nearly 80 countries.

The Community Climate System Model (CCSM) is one of the world’s leading global climate models. It provides state-of-the-art simulations of the Earth’s past, present, and future climate states. Using CCSM, scientists can anticipate the impact of such events as continued carbon dioxide emissions or volcanic eruptions on the global climate. As the model becomes more refined and computing capability increases, researchers will be able to determine the probability of certain climate or weather events on a much tighter regional scale. CCSM is also an important tool for paleoclimatologists seeking insights into ice ages and other major climate events in the past. CCSM played a critical role in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, and many NCAR scientists were involved in authoring the report.

The Earth System Grid (ESG), a collaborative project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is one of the first services that NCAR offered the TeraGrid system. It gives TeraGrid users access to vast repositories of climate model data and to data management tools. The ESG project recently received funding through a DOE Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing proposal. The next phase of ESG will expand the project to a global scale, include computation facilities, and add NOAA as a collaborating partner.

NCAR also provides cutting-edge tools that allow the scientific community improved access to valuable data resources. For instance, the Community Data Portal (CDP)—NCAR’s institutional repository for data, models, frameworks, and IPCC analyses—supports remote data upload and management for field projects. The Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF) is a unique national effort, supported by a large number of institutions, which will enable unified modeling activities for the next generation of models under development. ESMF provides a platform that reduces the difficulties of working in separate systems, so that independent components of different models of the Earth system can be linked into a cohesive whole. For example, researchers can study the ocean, atmosphere, and land surfaces concurrently, ultimately generating a drastically improved whole Earth system view. In some ways, ESMF’s greatest contribution has been sociological: it changes the way modelers think about model development. ESMF receives funding from NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

VAPOR, the Visualization and Analysis Platform for Ocean, Atmosphere, and Solar Researchers, is a tool developed by CISL in partnership with U.C. Davis and Ohio State University. Much like Google Earth, it gives researchers remote access to high-resolution images, and allows desktop or laptop computers to handle very large data sets without the limitations of large data transfers. VAPOR generates advanced interactive 3D visualizations, tightly coupled with quantitative data analysis, and runs on most UNIX and Windows systems equipped with modern 3D graphics cards.

Education and Outreach

Cultivating a world-class, broadly inclusive science and engineering workforce is a strong focus at NCAR. To nurture up-and-coming scientific talent, several of NCAR’s labs run advanced studies and internship programs. CISL’s Summer Internships in Parallel Computational Science (SIParCS) program targets students with backgrounds in computational science, applied mathematics, computer science, or the computational geosciences. This prototype program provides opportunities for exceptional students to gain practical experience with a wide variety of parallel computational science problems by working with the high-performance computing systems and applications related to NCAR’s Earth system science mission. Ultimately, SIParCS seeks to address future shortages of trained scientists and engineers capable of using and maintaining these high-end systems to achieve the goals of 21st century computational geoscience research.

Looking Ahead

NCAR’s scientific computing resources continue to pave the way for scientific discovery. And while the cutting-edge science is significant in its own right, much of NCAR’s work has a direct societal impact. Understanding our Earth system and how human activities affect its balance are crucial in dealing with issues such as climate change. And understanding the degree and nature of the changes we face is essential for policy decisions, adaptation strategies, and general preparedness. NCAR is uniquely positioned to combine its significant computational and information resources with the intellectual power of its user community to solve some of society’s most pressing challenges.

Marijke Unger is an External Relations Specialist at NCAR/CISL.

NCAR: Advancing Scientific Discovery to Benefit Society