DENVER — Taxed by increasingly complex requests for climate modeling, the National Center for Atmospheric Research will build a new supercomputer but house it in Wyoming, not near its headquarters in Boulder, Colo.
NCAR officials explained that the huge amounts of comparatively inexpensive electricity and space required for the $500 million computer upgrade are more easily had in Wyoming.
"We need the computing power because the questions people are asking are more difficult," said Lawrence Buja, director of NCAR's climate-science and applications program.
While climate-change modeling once dealt with global scenarios, the typical request now is more complex: " 'Where are the impacts?' 'How fast is it coming?' and 'What does it mean on a regional scale?' " Buja said. "What does it mean to me in the Rocky Mountains?"
Those who request models include utilities in major Western cities, insurance companies, an international bank and a ski area, Buja and others at NCAR said. All want to plug unique variables into computer models for climate change to anticipate how people can prepare and adapt.
"We didn't have that in the models before," Buja said. "Now, people are asking. It requires us to engage with whole new communities."
An NCAR team last week selected Saunders Construction, based in Denver, to build a $66 million facility on a 24-acre site in Cheyenne, said NCAR spokeswoman Marijke Unger. The 153,000-square-foot facility is expected to house one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, consisting of more than 100,000 processors positioned across a carefully controlled 24,000-square-foot area. It will be 20 times more powerful than the current NCAR computer.
Plans call for a subfloor 10 feet deep, compared with today's 28-inch space, for wiring and cooling the computers. Cheaper and more plentiful electricity from Wyoming's relatively untapped grid, including wind-generated power, is a key factor, said NCAR engineer Gary New, who maintains the current machine.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, one kilowatt-hour of electricity, as averaged across all price structures for residential, commercial and industrial users, costs 8.16 cents in Colorado, compared with 6.03 cents in Wyoming.
Technician Russ Gonsalves, an ex-Air Force code-writing whiz who monitors climate-modeling runs, said, "We will be capable of doing higher-resolution models at a much faster speed."
Climatologists "need to be able to make progress," said Aaron Andersen, enterprise-server section chief.
Some technicians are expected to move from NCAR's current Table Mesa lab west of Boulder.
The National Science Foundation funds NCAR's work, with guidance from universities. Plans call for opening the new supercomputing center by the end of 2011.
The upgrade would continue an evolution in climate-change modeling that began with Cray computers, which then morphed into IBM-made Blue Sky, Blue Vista and Blue Ice systems, until finally, in 2008, the current Blue Fire was switched on.
NCAR analyses vetted through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with thousands of scientists worldwide participating, became the basis for the climate conference now underway in Copenhagen, where world leaders are working toward an agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Among the NCAR scientists who coordinated that project is climatologist Gerald Meehl, who said he wants to make his latest models more detailed and useful.
Meehl recently analyzed vast temperature data and found that "since 2000, the number of record-high maximum temperatures has outnumbered the record-low minimum temperatures by a factor of about 2-to-1 — an indication of climate warming ... manifested in extreme temperatures."
His work, just accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, includes a modeling run that found high extremes will outnumber lows 20-to-1 by midcentury.
A supercomputer must next apply the data to individual communities, with a look at variables such as how much people drive and pollute. And to do that, "you gotta keep the computer cool," Meehl said.
"Computers are really the central element in how much detail we can put into climate models," he said.