October 30, 2006

Sandians to spend next five years figuring out the future of the Earth’s atmosphere through modeling

Mankind is making a tremendous impact on the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels at unprecedented levels, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air, says Mark Taylor, who is heading up a Sandia National Laboratories project to model climate change.

Most scientists believe that these emissions are causing the world to warm to dangerous levels. How that will affect the Earth’s future remains to be seen.

Sandia researchers Taylor and Bill Spotz will spend the next five years trying to figure out what the future might hold for the Earth’s atmosphere by collaborating on a large-scale climate model. They were recently awarded a grant as part of the DOE Office of Science’s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program.

Taylor and Spotz will be working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) using a petascale computer at Oak Ridge to extend the capabilities of an atmospheric model. Other participating institutions will work on different climate components, including the ocean, sea ice, and land use/land cover change that together make up the Community Climate System Model (CCSM).

“After the first three years we expect to have an atmospheric model operating on a petascale platform, which means it will have the capability of running million-billion calculations per second,” Taylor says. “And at the end of five years we hope to be modeling the carbon cycle at high fidelity [extremely accurate] rates.”

The CCSM already simulates dynamics, thermodynamics, moisture, chemical, and aerosol processes. The two researchers anticipate that over the next five years they can help make this model more efficient on large computers while other researchers will make it more comprehensive by adding biological, ecological and other processes.

Eventually, the new petscale CCSM will be used to model various atmospheric scenarios. The first would be business as usual — no change in how the world burns fossil fuels. Other models would determine what the world would look like if the burning of fossil fuels is reduced at varying rates.

“We don’t know the answer right now, due to the many complex feedbacks that the petascale model will help us figure out,” Taylor says. “ For example, plants absorb carbon dioxide through the photosynthesis process, but then release it back to the atmosphere when they decay. What is the net effect of a warming world on the type and amount of vegetation and their ability to absorb carbon dioxide?”

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Chris Burroughs,, (505) 844-0948