One of the world’s most powerful supercomputers designed to monitor climate change is mainly powered by the very fuel many scientists say is warming the planet: coal.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) began using a new supercomputer, named Cheyenne, that’s three times more powerful and energy-efficient than its predecessor, Yellowstone. Cheyenne is the fastest supercomputer in the western U.S. and the 20th fastest globally.
Immense computing power means Cheyenne needs a lot of energy. The supercomputer is housed at NCAR’s supercomputing center in Cheyenne, Wy. — a state that got 88 percent of its electricity from coal in 2015.
NCAR’s computing center gets 10 percent of its electricity needs from green energy, like wind and solar, according to its website, but the rest of its power is from clean coal provided by Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power.
The Wyoming center is LEED certified and built to handle 8 megawatts of power for its supercomputers. That power comes “primarily from ‘clean’ coal (coal that has been chemically scrubbed to reduce emissions of harmful pollutants),” NCAR noted in a staff bulletin.
NCAR says its Cheyenne computer is capable of making 5.34 quadrillion calculations per second. Such immense computing power will allow scientists to run complex climate and weather prediction models.
Scientists will use Cheyenne to forecast wind patterns, extreme weather and temperature changes. Researchers hope the supercomputer will help them better understand how human activities and natural variations impact Earth’s climate.
Meteorologist Anthony Watts first pointed out the irony that NCAR’s latest supercomputer will be powered by predominantly by coal — a fossil fuel targeted by scientists and environmentalists concerned about global warming.
“Coal, the ‘dirtiest of fuels,’ some say,” Watts joked in a recent blog post.
“You see as we know from supercomputers, they need a lot of energy to operate,” Watts wrote. “And because they operate in enclosed spaces, a lot of energy to keep them cooled so they don’t burn up from the waste heat they generate.”
“For all their sophistication, without power for operation and cooling, a supercomputer is just dead weight and space,” he wrote before detailing the reasons NCAR likely chose Wyoming coal power.
Scientists are worried President Donald Trump could cut funding for NCAR supercomputers, the Associated Press reported. NCAR operates the facility on behalf of the National Science Foundation.
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