Water-Cooled Supercomputer Set to Study Climate

IBM has designed a supercomputer that is water-cooled. It's the first one in the United States, and it is destined for scientists working on models of how climate is likely to change regional weather patterns — one of the most demanding problems in the climate science world.

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Figuring out what will happen to the world as the climate gets warmer is about as complex a scientific problem as you can find. It takes some of the world's most powerful computers months to come up with even approximate answers. IBM has a new kind of supercomputer to speed up that process. And one reason it's faster is it's water-cooled.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has more.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The new supercomputer is called Bluefire. It crunches data at 76 teraflops. In computer lingo that means it does a special kind of calculation 76 trillion times a second. That puts Blue Fire among the world's speediest. But what's cool about Bluefire is it's cool.

IBM's David Turek, whose title is vice president for deep computing, explains that keeping a supercomputer cool means it can operate faster.

Mr. DAVID TUREK (Vice President for Deep Computing, IBM): As people have built faster and faster microprocessors, one of the byproducts has been the emission of a tremendous amount of heat, which in turn requires a tremendous amount of cooling, which all comes down to how many dollars you want to spend to run your computer at the end of the day.

JOYCE: What IBM did was cool Bluefire with water instead of air from fans like most computers.

Mr. TUREK: You do that by creating kind of a heat sink on top of the microprocessor, a piece of metal that takes the heat away from the chip. And then that heat in turn is cooled by the passage of water nearby that metal.

JOYCE: As a result, Bluefire uses 30 percent less energy for cooling than the supercomputer it's replacing. And that allowed IBM to put in more powerful microprocessors.

Bluefire is going to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Climate scientist Lawrence Buja at the center says existing supercomputers can give only rough estimations of how climate is going to change. For example, how a whole continent or ocean might be affected. The new machine should be able to tackle more specific questions.

Mr. LAWRENCE BUJA (National Center for Atmospheric Research): Food supply is a major concern for society. So we can look at this - use this new computer to see how the future climate change is likely to affect specific crops, growing seasons. When are the heat waves going to occur? Does that come on at the same time as critical pollination periods? What are the changes in the water supply?

JOYCE: Buja says the computer may also be used to figure out ways to adapt to climate change.

Mr. BUJA: In Peru, there are five high altitude glaciers that have been there for thousands of years. And under these projections some of these are going to zero and we're going to have to figure out how to stand up replacement water and power that comes from these glaciers.

JOYCE: Scientists will also use Bluefire to develop the next big United Nations report on climate change, due out in about five years.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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