Supercomputers To The Rescue!

With high performance computing tools, Singapore is bolstering its response to emerging threats such as infectious diseases and climate change.

Fighting changes in the climate

Regardless of how the pandemic unfolds, climate issues loom as a tremendous and persistent danger. Singapore’s government calls it an existential threat—and rightly so. The various interactions between the atmosphere, ocean and land constitute an extremely intricate and massive system, one that could leave far-reaching consequences if urgent action is not taken.

Under the National Environment Agency’s Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS), scientists at the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) tapped two supercomputing resources to confront climate change. Besides the supercomputing system at NSCC, the team also uses an in-house Cray XC-40 system named Athena for weather forecasting, operations, and research and development (R&D).

“HPC is essential to perform the trillions of calculations required to predict the impact of changing greenhouse gas levels on the climate system, which includes sea level rise, rainfall and temperature changes,” said CCRS director Dale Barker in an interview with Supercomputing Asia.

Despite significant strides toward creating high- accuracy simulations, current climate models are not perfect. To cope with the many uncertainties in predicting future scenarios, climate sciences need supercomputers to run ‘ensembles’ of multiple models all at once, solving equations that describe the physical interactions of various environmental factors.

“These models are run with different parameters and forcing—a technique for proving the consistency and independence of results—to provide a quantitative estimate of uncertainty,” explained Barker. “Through such efforts, we can assign a likelihood statement, such as ‘very likely’ or ‘unequivocal,’ to inform risk assessments by decision-makers.”

One threat that Singapore seems more than likely to face is flooding, with about a third of its territory found less than five meters above sea level. According to the MSS, the city-state’s current sea level is around 14 centimeters higher than pre-1970 levels, while CCRS expects an average sea level rise of up to one meter by 2100.

To devise the best defense strategy against this looming hazard, the Coastal-Inland Flood Model is under development from the national water agency Public Utilities Board (PUB), NUS and water management company Hydroinformatics Institute. The model will simulate flooding in the country’s coastal and inland areas, leading to more accurate risk projections during different weather and climate scenarios.

“In anticipating continued climate change, the development of such a model is critical to safeguard both our coastlines and our collective future against severe weather events and rising sea levels,” said Professor Philip Liu, project team leader from NUS’ Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in a press release.

But beyond all these proactive initiatives against the growing climate crisis, the fight entails much more than anticipating possible disasters. Singapore’s researchers are also working on risk reduction and sustainability strategies.

IHPC, for instance, collaborated with the Housing and Development Board (HDB), a statutory board under the Ministry of National Development responsible for Singapore’s public housing, to develop the Integrated Environmental Modeler for simulating urban conditions such as wind patterns and sunlight.

By analyzing environmental data captured by street sensors, the model can reproduce the interactions between building structures, urban heat and air flow across the island, helping to plan out more sustainable urban environments.

“This approach can be used to design green and livable urban new residential towns with good thermal comfort to promote the efficient use of energy,” said Lim.

New tools in the arsenal

While current supercomputers are already changing the game for climate modeling, new HPC techniques and hardware are constantly being brought to bear in the fight against emerging threats. Climate scientists are recognizing the need to update and refine their HPC strategies with the rising importance of GPUs, originally designed for graphics acceleration in video games.

“Many models have originally been developed and optimized on CPU architectures. But these days, HPC centers provide not only CPU resources but also increasingly, GPU resources,” for Global Environmental Sustainability, in an interview with Supercomputing Asia. “Unlike CPUs, which are general-purpose processors, the strength of GPUs is that they are highly specialized.”

However, adapting the code of existing climate models to be compatible with GPUs is no easy feat. But if done right, it can significantly improve computing performance.

Barker similarly highlighted the importance of GPUs for innovative climate research, adding that these models are now being ported onto joint CPU- GPU clusters as well as distributed cloud computing technologies. The latter helps make HPC resources available to a broad range of users, hosting the service through the internet to enable access to data and running programs on-demand.

Tim Hornyak is a Canadian writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who has worked in journalism for more than 20 years. He has written extensively about travel, food, technology, science, culture and business in Japan, as well as Japanese inventors, roboticists and Nobel Prize-winning scientists. He is the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots and has contributed to several Lonely Planet travel guidebooks. He has lived in Tokyo for more than 15 years.

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