Big computers tackle the problem of climate change and, in doing so, cause climate change

The new TOP500 list is out. Geeks, like me, get excited about this. The semi-anual TOP500 ranks the world's biggest, fastest supercomputers.

At the top right now is Jaguar, a Cray XT5-HE Opteron Six Core 2.6 GHz, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Jaguary was upgraded this year at a cost of US$20-million and given the task of basically modelling the entire planet so that scientists can run various climate change problems on it.

Jaguar went 'live' earlier this year. It knocked an IBM system out of the top spot and the Jaguar folks were happy to brag about that.

The folks who operate that IBM system, though, bragged right back. The (U.S.) National Nuclear Security Administration may not have the number one slot anymore, but it's got three of the top 10, all of which are involved in modelling nuclear explosions:

The three computers in the top 10 were Roadrunner (#2, Los Alamos National Laboratory); BlueGene/L (#7, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory); and Red Sky (#10, Sandia National Laboratories/National Renewable Energy Laboratory). In addition, the Dawn platform at Livermore was ranked as the 11th fastest in the world.

“The work done on these complex machines enables us to maintain the safety, security and effectiveness of our nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing,” said NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino. “The supercomputing systems are a critical example of our investment in nuclear security making contributions to broader science and discovery. I am very pleased to see our laboratories and highly skilled personnel recognized for their groundbreaking contributions to the advancement of our national security programs and the field of supercomputing.”

All this supercomputing, though, may not be great news for the environment, as Bill St. Arnaud wrote on his blog this week:

… the UK Meteorological Office new supercomputer is one of the single biggest sources of CO2 emissions (Scope 2) in the UK. Paradoxically this is the same computer that is being used for climate modeling in that country. Thanks to a pointer from Steve Goldstein we learn that even America’s spy agency –NSA, is also running into energy issues and as such is building a huge new data centers in Utah and Texas, of which both will probably use dirty coal based electricity as well. There is also rumors that NCAR is building a new cyber-infrastructure center in Wyoming (presumably which will also use coal based electricity) which sort of undermines its own credibility as America’s leading climate research institute. I suspect very shortly with all the new announcements of grids and supercomputers from OSG to Jaguar, that cyber-infrastructure collectively in the US will be one of the top sources of CO2 emissions as it is now in the UK.

Bill's blog, incidentally is all about greening up the ICT sector. In one recent post, he noted that an Australian ISP with about 170,000 subscriber had gone carbon-neutral and was making its power and equipment purchasing decisions with an eye to lowering its carbon footprint.

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