Climate change 'dragons' need early warning system

Abrupt climate risk are real and to prepare, global alert systems -- and exascale computers to run them -- must be built, says National Research Council

A research panel is recommending creation of an early warning system for abrupt climate change.

Unlike like a hurricane warning system that's issued days in advance, or a tornado alert that arrives minutes ahead of impact, the climate change system would warn about events that could happen in in a few years or a few decades but have consequences that last far longer than those of any storm.

Abrupt climate change has already begun, according to a National Research Council report released on Wednesday.

For instance, in this century, the Arctic region is expect to lose its late summer sea ice, which will deliver large-scale atmospheric changes. Other near-term abrupt risks include a decrease in ocean oxygen, which is a threat to marine life and could lead to the release of more greenhouse gases. The changes increase the possibility of abrupt increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events.

The National Research Council report warns that abrupt climate change brings a high risk of extinctions, which in this century could include the loss of coral reefs, and a "significant percentage" of land-based mammal, bird and amphibian species. That's just in this century.

The risk levels increase for all types of things, including sea level rise, disruption of Atlantic currents, and release of carbon and methane stored permafrost and the oceans, during the next century.

"Action is urgently needed to improve society's ability to anticipate abrupt climate change impacts," the report recommends.

The National Research Council was established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. It is part of the National Academy of Sciences, which was created during the Lincoln administration, and is charged with "providing independent, objective advice to the nation of matters related to science and technology."

The report broadly calls the climate change threats "dragons," borrowing from the phase, "Here be dragons," that appears on a globe from the time of Christopher Columbus. The dragons are a "metaphor for unknown threats."

The report recommends development of an "Abrupt Change Early Warning System" (ACEWS). The idea is improve prediction and respond with mitigation strategies so governments can prepare and reduce the impact on their populations. This is not a new concept. There are similar types of warning systems for droughts and famine.

Exactly how the early warning system would work in not spelled out in the report, but technology will play a big role. Such a system would require significant computing power. "Computation resources, while increasing, still remain an obstacle for climate-scale high-resolutions simulations," the report said.

That the study of climate change needs greater computing power has already been established. Models are getting more complex. Scientists want to pump ever more data sources into their models to simulate entire systems, not just parts of them, creating exabytes of data in the process. One exabyte is a quintillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, bytes.

The specifics of the early warning system will be left to a later work. But the current report could help lawmakers who are looking to fund exascale supercomputing development efforts. An exascale system is capable of one million trillion calculations per second, or 1,000 times faster than the single petaflop systems available today

To date, the U.S. has not budgeted for full-scale exascale program. .

Climate change studies involves data collection on a global scale. Data is collected from the depths of the ocean, all land masses, the sky and from incoming solar energy. The studies must look at the chemistry of the oceans, the atmosphere, aerosols, precipitation, cloud, ice sheets, glaciers and many other forces.

The data today is in different formats, so standards and APIs must be developed.

Computing power increases the ability of scientists to model and simulate what is going on, and thus potentially discover a climate tipping point before it happens.

But increases in computing power could also help combat climate change.

A U.S. Dept. of Energy report earlier this year, said that exascale computing "offers the promise of enabling combustion simulations" that are "needed to design fuel efficient, clean burning vehicles" and power plants. The conventional method of developing new engines and certifying new fuels "have only led to incremental improvements."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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