Argonne's Intrepid Weathermen

October 29, 2008

BY GUY TRIDGELL Staff writeR

Our best defense against tornados, floods, hurricanes and other meteorological chaos might be found inside the rusting steel exterior of Building 369 at Argonne National Laboratory.

Protected by an enclosed concrete fortress, in the space once reserved for President Ronald Reagan's old Star Wars program, sits the world's third most-powerful supercomputer.

Known as Intrepid, the machine resembles five rows of black refrigerators. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will rely on Intrepid to increase its chances of knowing when and where storms will hit - hurricanes in particular.

Much of the scientific heavy lifting will be done by researchers at Argonne, the sprawling federal Department of Energy lab near Lemont.

"Our hope is years from now we can predict where exactly a hurricane will come ashore weeks in advance," said Pete Beckman, head of Argonne's mathematics and computer science division. "Right now we have a couple of days before people are told to evacuate an area. We want to be able to do that a month in advance."

Oh, and along the way, Beckman and his team hope to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding global warming.

Work is under way

Since Intrepid was powered up in the spring, the efforts represent just another day at the office.

Argonne and NOAA joined forces in September as part of the lab's "open science computation" mission that makes the $165 million supercomputer available to government scientists and corporations nationwide.

Other ongoing projects include the University of California-San Diego looking at how Parkinson's disease affects the brain; Pratt & Whitney designing a new generation of jet engines; and the University of Chicago studying supernovas.

Intrepid is capable of 557 trillion mathematic calculations per second. Intrepid is so powerful, 163,840 hours of work will take place in a single hour of real time.

Through the end of the year, NOAA is committed to 2.5 million working hours on Intrepid to rework its climate and weather modeling.

Guiding the work with NOAA will be a dozen or so staff at Argonne's Leadership Computing Facility, including computational scientist Katherine Riley.

"One of the big things for any of the groups that use our system is that they have more questions than time to solve them," Riley said. "We are trying to give them the resources to solve them."

One of the keys to the project is breaking the Earth's geodesic grid into smaller sections, producing a more accurate depiction of how the weather is behaving. The existing models used by NOAA rely on grid points spaced several kilometers apart.

Beckman said condensing the data fields will yield more insight into weather and climate patterns.

"The likelihood that you can simulate what is happening on Earth becomes much better," he said. "One thing we don't know is how small we can go to accurately read the planet."

Big changes could happen

Beckman said the research also could change the types of information meteorologists look to when calculating their forecasts.

"We could find out the water temperature at the surface of the ocean and at 30 feet down are key pieces of data," he said. "If you get the right science together, you can make breakthroughs."

The payoff could be in the billions of dollars.

Homeowners, confident their neighborhood will be slammed by a Category 5 hurricane in several weeks, could plan accordingly to minimize the damage.

Farmers would know what types of crops to plant if they are expecting a particularly dry summer.

Urban planners could safeguard against flooding if they were told a development might potentially upset wetlands miles away.

"You couldn't do this kind of work on my laptop," Beckman said. "This is a one-of-a-kind machine."

Guy Tridgell can be reached at gtridgell@southtownstar.com or (708)633-5970.