Predicting success with Niwa supercomputer

BY KATIE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 22/07/2010

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Kiwis will have better warnings of floods, droughts and storms now a new supercomputer has been switched on – but don't expect the daily weather forecast to improve.

Niwa's new $12.7 million computer – the most powerful in the southern hemisphere – will be officially launched today.

The supercomputer will improve scientists' ability to forecast the impact of severe weather events such as flooding, storm surge and inundation. It will also model climate change, river flow, ocean levels and wave patterns.

But principal scientist Michael Uddstrom said it would not make the daily weather forecast more reliable – yet. "We're doing the research that will lead to improvement of forecasting."

It would provide better predictions about severe weather events. The computer was like a "scientific laboratory" where complex mathematical problems could be worked out, he said.

Housed in a specially constructed room at Niwa's base at Greta Pt in Wellington, the computer has 100 times the power of Niwa's existing supercomputer.

Chief executive John Morgan said the new computer was one of the most significant single investments in science in New Zealand.

"More accurate forecasts of the natural environment are essential to the future growth of New Zealand's important industries like farming, horticulture, and the infrastructure and renewable energy sectors."

As well as forecasting, the computer will also help further medical science. Auckland University bioengineers will use it to work on creating computer models of the human body as part of the international Physiome project.

The models will incorporate biochemistry, biophysics and the anatomy of cells, tissue and organs to provide new approaches to diagnosing and treating patients as well as help in the development of new medicines.

"The body has to obey the laws of physics, so by using mathematical equations we're able to better understand how you as an individual operate," project leader Professor Peter Hunter said.

Phase one of the installation is complete. Phase two, next year, will double the computer's capacity.

COMPUTE THIS

It can perform 34 trillion calculations a second – equal to 7000 laptops working at once. It will increase to 65 trillion calculations in 2011.

It can store 5 Petabytes (that's 5 million Gigabytes) on tape – or a 3000 year-long MP3 file.

It weighs 18.8 tonnes – Niwa has built a special room for it (fire, tsunami and earthquake-proof) and had to have the floor specially strengthened.

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Models that took 80 minutes to complete on 40 per cent of the old supercomputer will now take 8 minutes on about 4 per cent of the new system.

The cooling system includes two 370kW air-cooled water chillers, a cooling circuit that holds 5500 litres of chilled water, and redundant water pumps (and circuits) to move the water at up to 45 litres a second.

It is 100 times faster and has 500 times more disk space than the current model. After the phase two fitout, it will be twice that again.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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