Earth Simulator

Earth Simulator Earth simulator at JAMSTEC Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences
Photo Credit: By GenGen (げんげん) [CC-BY-2.1-jp], via Wikimedia Commons

Today's desktop computers are literally millions of times more powerful than the first P.C.'s on the market. But they can't hold a candle to the Earth Simulator, the most powerful supercomputer on the planet.


The world's most powerful computer. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In an international competition of computing power held this year, the champion was a machine called the Earth Simulator. Built by the Japanese government in 2002, it packs forty thousand times the computing power of a typical desktop P.C., and attracts scientists from all over the world. Among them is Kevin Hamilton, a professor of meteorology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


The machine itself is quite impressive. It occupies a room about 70 yards wide by 55 yards deep. And what you actually see there, from the visitor's gallery, is about 300 big boxes. And there's something like maybe half a million miles of wire, connecting underneath the floor of that computer room.

The Earth Simulator creates complex models of earthquakes, ocean currents, winds, and weather in unprecedented detail. Dr. Hamilton says these models help scientists understand how the planet works now, and may shed light on the future.


So for example, if you're doing climate predictions, one thing you're interested in, very much, may be how the typical season of tropical cyclones might change in the future. Are they going to become typically more intense or more numerous, or the opposite?

He says global warming may strongly affect violent storms like these, and the Earth Simulator may help us predict what's in store. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

The computer you're using to read this webpage, if it's brand new and running at the top of its game, might perform up to one billion operations per second. That's pretty amazing in itself. But the Earth Simulator can perform as much as 35 trillion operations per second.

That's a lot of computing power. But when you're trying to model the earth itself, you need all the computing power you can get. The earth is an incredibly complex system, where wind, weather, earthquakes, ocean currents, atmospheric gases, and pollution are all interacting with each other and changing every moment in every possible dimension.

It's unlikely that we'll ever be able to simulate all of these processes down to the finest detail. But the Earth Simulator takes earth modeling farther than it's ever gone before. For example, Hamilton uses the simulator to study the atmosphere. He's able to model the wind speed and direction, temperature, and moisture content of the air over the entire globe at a resolution of about five miles, with 100 levels of depth.

If it's hard to understand what a big deal this is, take a step outside. Notice how quickly the wind can change speed and direction when you're just standing in one place. How would you express that in numbers? It would be pretty tricky, right? Now add in tiny changes in temperature and air moisture, and spread that out over the whole planet, and you'll get some idea of how impressive the Earth Simulator’s computing power really is.

Another important achievement of the Earth Simulator is that it can actually combine models of different systems together into one. For example, scientists in Japan are now using the Earth Simulator to model the atmosphere and the ocean currents in one system. That's important because ocean currents actually affect the atmosphere, and vice versa. (Warm ocean currents are the main reason that England, which is as far north as northern Canada, has fairly mild weather.) In the past, scientists have had to model ocean currents and the atmosphere more or less separately, since each system takes so much computing power. Now, they can model them together, creating a model that's more like the actual earth.

Having access to this level of computing will help scientists predict short and long-term changes in climate, earthquakes, and other major earth processes. The main drawback to the Earth Simulator? You have to travel to Japan to use it. After all, if you tried accessing it over the Internet, your own computer would crash and beg for mercy.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What's unique about the Earth Simulator?
  2. Why do scientists need such a powerful computer to model earth processes?
  3. What are some potential applications of the Earth Simulator?
  4. Can you think of other systems that would require extremely powerful computers to model? Explain why you think the system is so complex.


For Educators

Visit the Earth Simulator Center's English language website here.

The Goddard Institute for Space Science's Science Briefs and Lessons pages include many news features and activities related to computer models of the atmosphere, oceans, climate, etc.

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