Published: Feb. 4, 2009

A new University of Colorado at Boulder-based supercomputer will vastly extend the ability of scientists across the globe in modeling and predicting many important aspects of Earth's surface processes, from glacial melting and flooding to coastal erosion and tropical ocean storms.

The $750,000 cluster will support the National Science Foundation-funded Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, or CSDMS, a library of computational tools used by scientists worldwide to model and predict natural and human-influenced environmental events. The new computer cluster, funded largely by CU-Boulder, the U.S. Geological Survey and Silicon Graphics of Sunnyvale, Calif., is now the single largest computing facility on campus.

"One possible model could predict the flooding extent of a river under certain climate conditions," said CSDMS Executive Director and CU-Boulder Professor James Syvitski. "We could model and predict when it will flood, where it will flood and how destructive it might be."

The new computer also will boost the capabilities of the science community, said Syvitski. "We now will be able to run simulations that we never could run previously, at a time and space resolution that will make the environmental industry want to work with us."

CSDMS is one of three prongs of an NSF effort to model Earth, from its deep interior to atmospheric climate systems, Syvitski said. The other two, which are modeling Earth's atmosphere and modeling earthquakes, volcanoes and continental movement, are centered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and the California Institute of Technology, respectively.

An important mission of the CSDMS program is to involve academic and industry scientists across the globe, allowing them to contribute their own research and use existing models, Syvitski said. Currently, CSDMS consists of a network of over 250 scientists from 22 countries. While the community is a virtual one, the CU-Boulder integration facility is the physical core responsible for the workings of the system.

"We are the ones that are collecting the models and testing them," said Syvitski. "We are leading the effort on behalf of the federal agencies to get geoscientists to use the latest hardware."

In order to further its mission, researchers at the CU-Boulder-headquartered CSDMS integration facility host about 15 meetings a year and have eight focused research groups. The groups meet once a year and include a carbonate working group, a hydrology working group and a coastal working group.

Syvitski said he believes providing the service also benefits the CU-Boulder research community. "We have a lot of the top scientists coming to Boulder," said Syvitski. "And having CSDMS and this new computer cluster here will definitely help scientists from many different departments within CU-Boulder."

He stressed that the advantages of CSDMS ultimately extend worldwide. "The public can get access to both models and their simulation results," said Syvitski. The models all go through a process of rigorous testing, verification and standardization, he said.

In addition to avoiding a duplication of effort, CSDMS provides support that allows scientists to focus on modeling the ever-changing interface between Earth, its oceans and the atmosphere, he said.

In May 2007, NSF awarded Syvitski's CSDMS team $4.2 million.