Computers V. The Human Mind

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

800px-Columbia_Supercomputer_-_NASA_Advanced_Supercomputing_Facility.jpg The race is on. Will computers able to make 1 quadrillion calculations per second convince us to make up our minds and do something about climate change?

Four of the brainiest centers on Earth* have received a $1.4 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to generate new climate models using new "petascale" computers that make ordinary supercomputers look like 90-pound weaklings.

"The limiting factor to more reliable climate predictions at higher resolution is not scientific ideas, but computational capacity to implement those ideas," said Jay Fein, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

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Researchers once assumed that climate could be predicted independently of weather. Now they're finding that weather has a profound impact on climate. (Not as weird as it sounds.) With petascale computing capabilities, Ben Kirtman, a meteorologist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, has developed interactive ensembles designed to isolate the interactions between weather and climate.

These are being applied to one of the nation's premier climate change models—the Community Climate System Model, a community model used by hundreds of researchers, and in the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change assessments. "This marks the first time that we will have the computational resources available to address these scientific challenges in a comprehensive manner," said Kirtman.

This is a good start. But $1.4 million? Chump change compared to the $275 million we spend every day on the war in Iraq. All the computing in the world isn't going to do any good unless we can convince enough of our own human minds to tackle the real problems not the phantoms.

*The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmospheric Studies in Calverton, Md., and the University of California at Berkeley.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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