Federal weather forecasting faces bleeding edge

Federal weather forecasting faces bleeding edge


Federal weather forecasters have honed their prediction skills just about to the limit on silicon-chip computers.

To handle future modeling and simulation needs, the nation needs more advanced technologies, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said this month at a Silver Spring, Md., forum sponsored by supercomputer maker SGI (see more photos, Page 47).

Representatives of NASA, the Navy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described their forays into weather and climate prediction, which Goldin called 'probably the single toughest problem we have.'

Predicting weather and climate conditions is 'probably the single toughest problem we have,' NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin says.
When Goldin became NASA chief in 1992, researchers were pushing computer makers to achieve 1 trillion floating-point operations per second. He said he is convinced the space agency will need tens of thousands of TFLOPS or tens of petaFLOPS to design complex future aircraft and satellites.

Nanotechnology to come

Systems that can execute 40,000 TFLOPS, or 40 petaFLOPS, will be necessary for the enormously detailed structural analysis and flight dynamics engineering that Goldin envisions. Current silicon engineering cannot maintain the necessary rate of increase in computer performance, he said.

He called for spending up to $100 million on such unconventional approaches as nanotechnology, which would build ultra-small devices one atom or molecule at a time.

Goldin also urged government researchers to improve their analytical techniques before their observations and computer simulations turn into what he called data morgues.

Last year, NASA collected 330T of data, more than in all of the past 40 years, Goldin said. In the future, the agency will collect petabytes or exabytes'millions of terabytes.

Many research groups have developed climate prediction models but can't share their data sets easily, said James Fischer, manager of the Earth and Space Sciences Project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The space agency has nine proposals for building advanced climate change models that will interoperate, Fischer said. The project will spend $18 million to get such models into production by 2004.

2002 bank's empty

That and a learning-technologies project are the only components of NASA's High-Performance Computing and Communications Program that will be funded past the end of this year, Fischer said. Next year's budget omits computational aerosciences, networking and remote exploration programs.

NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., has achieved large performance gains by porting codes designed for vector supercomputers from Cray Inc. of Seattle to SGI Origin 2000 and Origin 3000 platforms, said Jim Taft of Ames' Terascale Applications Group. NASA Ames is installing an Origin 3000 that will be the first of its kind with 1,024 processors working as a unit.

Mike Clancy, chief scientist and deputy technical director of the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey, Calif., said the Navy center is phasing out its two Cray C90 and two J90 systems in favor the Origin 3000 platform.

Transition started in late 1999 with a 128-processor Origin 2000 with 128G of memory and continued last year with delivery of a 128-processor Origin 3800, Clancy said.

The upgrades will let oceanographers increase the resolution of models that simulate interactions between oceans and the atmosphere, he said.

Last month, the center installed a 512-processor Origin 3800 and will retire the Cray C90s this summer, Clancy said. The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington has purchased the older Origin 2000 system as a code development platform, although it will remain physically in Monterey.

Richard W. Spinrad, technical director of the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, reminded the gathering why the Navy spends $400 million per year on weather-related operations (see story, Page 7).

In 1943, about 1,000 Marines lost their lives on Tarawa Atoll in the South Pacific because the Navy couldn't predict the tides accurately, Spinrad said. Today the service is trying to track light but variable winds that affect fighter jet takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers.

NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., studies the effects of overall climate on extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and heat waves, deputy director Bruce B. Ross said. The lab has separate Origin 3800 clusters for carrying out complex simulations and for analyzing the data sets that result.


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