Extreme weather events have always been an inevitable part of life for every species on Earth. History is full of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, volcanic eruptions, heat waves, cold snaps, and other major climatic events that have shaped the existence of life on the planet. These events often remind us how fragile and vulnerable life is – humans, plants, animals, and all – in the face of our planet’s mighty natural forces.
Unfortunately, extreme weather events of all kinds are both more frequent and more powerful today than they have been for all of human history due to climate change. According to the Yale School of the Environment, “Climate-related disasters jumped 83 percent – from 3,656 events during the 1980-1999 period to 6,681 in the past 20 years. Major floods have more than doubled, the number of severe storms has risen 40 percent, and there have been major increases in droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves. From 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major natural disasters around the world, killing 1.23 million people and resulting in $2.97 trillion in global economic losses.”
One of the most visible, most destructive types of extreme weather events are wildfires. Wildfires often have a myriad of complex causes, but dry, hot conditions drastically increase the odds of powerful blazes. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Heat waves are occurring three times more often than they did in the 1960s – about six per year compared with two per year. The average heat wave season is 49 days longer, and individual heat waves are lasting longer and becoming more intense.”
Of course, wildfires have been on the minds of many people in North America because of the major wildfires that broke out in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia in March 2023. These massive fires blanketed much of the northern part of the continent with smoke and ash throughout the summer, burning “an estimated 18.4 million hectares – an area roughly the size of North Dakota,” according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Beyond burning massive stretches of land, wildfires have far-reaching effects that impact people, communities, wildlife, ecosystems, the atmosphere, and much more. They’re destructive, costly events that uproot living beings and alter entire landscapes. These fires’ destructive force is why the U.S. National Science Foundation National Center for Atmospheric Research (NSF NCAR) is dedicated to studying them and their causes – with the goal of mitigating their worst effects through a combination of prevention and prediction.
Wildfire Prediction: Predicting and Preventing Wildfires with HPC
NSF NCAR is a world-class research center that leads, promotes, and facilitates innovation in the Earth systems sciences. It was established by the National Science Foundation in 1960 to enable the university community with powerful facilities and services that are otherwise beyond the reach of individual institutions. NSF NCAR provides the atmospheric science community with state-of-the-art resources, including supercomputers, sophisticated computer models, and extensive data sets.
When it comes to wildfire prediction, NSF NCAR’s objective is to improve wildfire behavior models, explore the air quality impacts of smoke plumes, understand how wildfires may change in a warming climate, and much more via observations from research aircraft and other tools. Overall, NSF NCAR develops wildfire prediction tools that help firefighters, local authorities, and resource managers direct their efforts more effectively. After all, tactically placing firefighting personnel, equipment, and promptly notifying the public saves property, lives, and livelihoods.
To accomplish this, supercomputers – and the vital software that keeps them running efficiently – are paramount, one of humanity’s greatest tools to help us understand the world around us. NSF NCAR’s most powerful supercomputer, Derecho, features 2,488 compute nodes with 128 AMD Milan cores per node and 82 nodes with four NVIDIA A100 GPUs each. Overall, the system is expected to deliver about 3.5 times the scientific throughput of the Cheyenne system, Derecho’s predecessor. To facilitate their world-renowned research on these incredible machines, NSF NCAR uses Altair PBS® Professional®, a fast, powerful workload manager that improves productivity, optimizes utilization and efficiency, and simplifies administration for clusters, clouds, and supercomputers – including the biggest, most complex high-performance computing (HPC) workloads on Top500 systems like Derecho.
In a world where extreme climate events such as wildfires are becoming more common, technology like the Derecho supercomputer – and related simulation and data analytics tools – are invaluable in wildfire prediction and beyond. Altair knows firsthand that modeling the Earth’s weather and climate is a massive, important challenge that requires powerful HPC systems and software that can orchestrate the most complex workloads.
Make no mistake: the collaboration between NSF NCAR and Altair has far-reaching real-world impacts. According to NSF NCAR, fires in the U.S. in 2020, for example, burned 10.3 million acres, resulted in more than 40 deaths, and caused $16.5 billion in damages. A recent report by the Canadian Climate Institute estimated that “climate-related costs could mount to 25 billion Canadian dollars in 2025.” Ultimately, technology like NSF NCAR’s Derecho supercomputer and the software that powers similar systems offers the potential to help researchers, communities, and governments mitigate the worst effects of wildfires and save land, lives, ecosystems, and millions of dollars every year.
Antarctic Support: Supporting Antarctica’s McMurdo Station
But Altair and NSF NCAR aren’t just focused on wildfire prediction and scorching blazes – their collaboration is also providing crucial weather and climate reports for the more than 1,000 people stationed at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. Talk about polar opposites! At the station, extreme weather is a given – average temperatures there hover around -1 F (-18 C), but have dipped to -58 F (-50 C), snowfall and limited visibility is a constant factor, and winds can whip to 50 mph (~80 kph) and beyond. The station’s crew need these crucial reports to ensure they don’t get taken by surprise by blizzards or other extreme phenomena in the planet’s merciless polar climate.
And though the climate may be merciless, the station remains a scientific gold mine despite its location on the planet’s most inhospitable continent. There, teams conduct research in aeronomy, astrophysics and geospace sciences, biology and ecosystems, geology and geophysics, glaciology, geomorphology, ice cores, and ocean and climate systems. Overall, McMurdo Station supports cutting-edge research that “improves understanding of interactions among the Antarctic region and global systems, expands fundamental knowledge of Antarctic systems, biota, and processes, and utilizes the unique characteristics of the Antarctic region as a science observing platform.”
NSF NCAR’s supercomputers, equipped with Altair tools, provide McMurdo Station and the U.S. Antarctic Program with crucial twice-daily weather reports that assist them in a variety of functions. These reports help pilots determine whether it’s safe to fly into and out of Antarctica, and they’re especially critical in rare emergency situations, such as when a group of more than 30 people became stranded in a blizzard and needed rescue, or when a crew member experienced a medical emergency.
More broadly, NSF NCAR’s work with McMurdo Station demonstrates how HPC’s impact on researching weather and climate – and the people that make it their life’s work – affects our planet on a global scale. NSF NCAR’s innovations help us better understand the southern pole and beyond, deepening our knowledge about our ever-changing climate and its impact on people, animals, and ecosystems across the globe.
Supercomputers like Derecho, and the HPC technology that enables them, support vital scientific research that not only allows us to anticipate weather and climate events, but also to understand our own impact on Earth’s natural systems – from fire to ice and everything in between. It also helps us anticipate, prepare for, and avoid extreme climate events to save lives, ecosystems, and millions or even billions of dollars. As we continue seeing the effects of climate change, HPC technologies will only become more important not just to the teams in and around NSF NCAR, but to every one of us around the world.
Altair is proud to support NSF NCAR’s supercomputing technology and looks forward to continued collaboration so we can create a better, greener, safer future. To learn more about Altair’s HPC and cloud capabilities, visit https://altair.com/hpc-cloud-applications. To learn more about PBS Professional, visit https://altair.com/pbs-professional.