NERSCPowering Scientific Discovery Since 1974

Unraveling the Mysteries of Earth's Environment

Over the years, environmental scientists and biologists have become some of the most prolific users of NERSC resources

August 11, 2014

Contact: Kathy Kincade, +1 510 495 2124,

Google “climate change” and you’ll encounter a startling list of ominous headlines: “8 charts that show how climate change is making the world more dangerous”; “How climate change is destroying our national parks”; “Will climate change worsen Ebola outbreaks?”; “Climate change threatens national security; “Climate change linked to kidney stones.”

The Community Earth System Model (CESM) enables researchers to conduct fundamental research into the Earth's past, present and future climate states. Image: UCAR

As the debate over its potential to alter Earth as we know it continues, researchers around the world are using supercomputers at NERSC to create, analyze and share increasingly large amounts of data on climate change issues, from surface temperature increase and glacial retreat to reduced snow cover, changing precipitation patterns and rising sea levels. In fact, 13 percent of NERSC’s supercomputing resources—more than 220 million processor-hours—were used in 2013 to study global climate change and related environmental and biological phenomena.

The bulk of this research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER). Since the 1950s, BER has been a critical contributor to climate science research, beginning with studies of atmospheric circulation—the forerunners of climate models. Today, with an annual budget of more than $600 million, BER is the nation’s leading supporter of fundamental research and facilities for energy, climate and the environment.

For example, BER supports the Community Earth System Model, a leading U.S. climate model, and addresses two of the most critical areas of uncertainty in contemporary climate science—the impact of clouds and aerosols—through support of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility, which is used by hundreds of scientists worldwide.

In addition, with its Genomic Sciences Program and the DOE Joint Genome Institute (JGI), BER researchers are using plant and microbial systems biology to pursue breakthroughs needed to develop cost-effective cellulosic biofuels. BER also operates and manages the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a supercomputing center that provides suites of mass spectrometry, X-ray and laser spectroscopy capabilities and other high-resolution imaging instrumentation for molecular-level studies.

This data set from the 20th Century Reanalysis Project illustrates a La Nina (1917) and El Nino (1919). Note that during the La Nina, most of the atmospheric water in the tropical Pacific tended to be in the west while during El Nino, it shifts eastward to the central Pacific. Image: NOAA

Here’s a look at how research teams across the U.S. use BER and NERSC resources to address critical environmental and energy issues.

Climate/Earth Modeling

The study of climate involves many factors, including sea temperature, currents, sea ice, the interaction between the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere, air temperatures over land and the role of clouds. Supercomputer applications for studying climate typically involve applications modeling each of these components and having them interact over a specified time—decades, centuries, even millennia. Running such models can require the simultaneous use of tens of thousands of processors running nonstop for weeks or months.

Through BER-sponsored research, NERSC users have made significant contributions to the scientific basis for assessing the potential consequences of climatic changes and costs of alternative response options. In the 1990s, for example, climate models treated the western U.S. from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains as a uniform landmass without the mountains, deserts and waterways that affect climate. Thanks to increasingly powerful supercomputers and advances in algorithms and software, researchers today can model the globe at the 2-kilometer level. With each improvement in the resolution, the model is more accurate.

Other projects have focused on the delicate balance that clouds play in managing Earth’s climate. In our current climate, clouds have an overall cooling effect on the Earth. But as global warming progresses, the cooling effect of clouds might be enhanced or weakened. In addition, clouds can contribute to warming by trapping greenhouse gases. So researchers are using computer models to try and determine how much the average global temperature will increase in response to greenhouse gas emissions, when it will happen and how it will affect specific regions.

NERSC researchers are also involved in a variety of Earth modeling activities, including geophysical and molecular dynamics representations of the Earth's composition; studying processes involved in using geophysical reservoirs to extract and store carbon dioxide so as to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere; and detailed examination of clay-mineral interfaces. Web-based portals hosted by NERSC, such as the Earth Systems Grid (ESG), enable users in this research community to easily share large data sets and simulation results.

High-resolution simulation for Mexico City (top), shows a more detailed and accurate picture of aerosol pollution compared to representations of a global climate model (bottom). The deep red to light green colors represent concentrations of aerosol pollution with red being highest, light green lowest.

Meanwhile, atmospheric scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used NERSC resources to reveal that small scale effects of aerosols—tiny particles of dust or pollution in the atmosphere—can add up and over time and lead to large, accumulated errors in climate prediction models.

Environmental Contamination

Environmental contamination is another focus of BER-sponsored research at NERSC. By developing computational tools to effectively model Earth's climate and helping to understand, predict and mitigate the impacts of environmental contamination, scientists are ensuring that society can successfully adapt to a changing world.

NERSC users advance fundamental science to understand, predict and mitigate the impact of environmental contamination. This is especially important for remediation of contaminated areas where hazardous materials might become widely dispersed by groundwater flow. Models that accurately simulate contaminant movement and incorporate physical, chemical and biological processes help create predictive capabilities applicable to field-scale subsurface contamination problems.

Biological Research

BER-supported researchers are also working to develop cost-effective biofuels. For example, if researchers could unlock the sugars stored in plant cellulose, then liquid biofuels could be made from hardy, high yielding, non-food crops like switchgrass, instead of the corn used to make ethanol. But what makes non-food crops indigestible to humans also makes them challenging raw materials for biofuel production. The sugars needed to make biofuels are locked up tight in cellulose, and researchers have yet to figure out an economical, scalable way to break them loose. But computer simulations run at NERSC showed how two different processes help unzip cellulose’s structure, peeling off long strings of sugars. That information should help researchers engineer molecules that do the job better, cheaper, and on a larger scale,

Other biological research efforts supported by NERSC include:

• Using genomics and systems biology to understand plants and microbes (Joint Genome Institute)
• Developing and applying atomistic-molecular to coarse-grained mathematical models of potential energy surfaces
• Fundamental research in the redesign of microbial metabolic processes to harness their potential in the conversion of biomass to biofuels
• Simulations to unravel functional annotations of unstructured proteins from analysis across genomic and structural relationships

For more information about BER and its energy research efforts, go to

About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high-performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the NERSC Center serves more than 6,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. DOE Office of Science. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.