One of the most powerful computers in the world dedicated to climate change, weather and other earth science research will be replaced in 2017 by an even faster machine.
The Yellowstone supercomputer in the US state of Wyoming now ranks among the 60 fastest in the world. The new supercomputer, to be named Cheyenne, will be at least 2½ times more powerful, says the National Centre for Atmospheric Research.
Capable of 5.3 quadrillion calculations, or petaflops, per second, Cheyenne will be about 100,000 times faster than a typical home computer. The speed provides unprecedented detail in climate-change predictions, including regional modelling of effects.
A more powerful computer will allow researchers to see results in higher resolution, in the same way that a higher density of pixels sharpens images on a television, or a stronger telescope brings a greater number of far-off galaxies into focus, explained Rich Loft, the centre's director of technology.
Scientists since 2012 have been using the Yellowstone supercomputer for a range of research that also includes modelling air pollution and ocean currents.
The atmospheric research centre plans to install Cheyenne later this year and put it to work early next year. One of its prime applications will be to study whether scientists can predict the intensity of solar flares – streams of radiation released by the sun that can endanger satellites and astronauts – during an upcoming solar cycle. It will also investigate how climate change could increase the likelihood of droughts.
The Yellowstone computer, located in a business park west of Cheyenne, put Wyoming's capital on the map as a potential technology hub. Facilities including a huge Microsoft data centre have set up nearby since the centre opened.
The Cheyenne supercomputer will be about three times as efficient as Yellowstone, using 90 per cent as much electricity but taking up to a third as much space. The machine will be built by California-based Silicon Graphics International.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 100 North American universities and colleges, oversees the National Centre for Atmospheric Research.