Using supercomputers to explore ice sheet dynamics

February 28, 2011 By Charli Kerns, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Ice sheets in Glacier Bay National Park are subject to dynamics that SEACISM researchers simulate on leadership-class supercomputers. Credit: Kate Evans

Recently, Rhode Island-sized chunks of ice have separated from Greenland and Antarctica, garnering worldwide attention. But is this calving due to typical seasonal variations or a long-term warmer world? Climate scientists already use ice sheet models to better understand how ice loss affects sea levels; however, those models are not easily adapted for use in global climate models. In August the Scalable, Efficient, and Accurate Community Ice Sheet Model project began on Jaguar, one of the world's fastest supercomputers, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. SEACISM's aim is to use state-of-the-art simulation to predict the behavior of ice sheets under a changing climate by developing scalable algorithms.

"Right now we don't know enough to predict the dynamics of the ice sheets," said ORNL computational Earth scientist Kate Evans, who leads the SEACISM project. Included in the team are other scientists from ORNL, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, New York University and Florida State University. Their goal is to address this lack of understanding by reducing uncertainties about climate and sea-level predictions through high-fidelity simulations that resolve important ice sheet features.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not provide a prediction of ice sheet fate due to a lack of data. Given the importance of building a predictive capability, the Department of Energy's Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research created an initiative to meet that need. ASCR's Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing program funded the Ice Sheet Initiative for CLimate ExtremeS to yield high-fidelity, high-resolution ice sheet models.

SEACISM is one of six projects launched from ISICLES, all of which respond to the national and international need to include better ice sheet in Earth system models. Among other objectives, the projects will quantify uncertainties of dynamic predictions and develop models to efficiently use supercomputers. ASCR's Leadership Computing Challenge program granted SEACISM researchers 5 million processor hours on Jaguar, a leadership computing facility system capable of up to 2.3 quadrillion calculations per second. Another 1 million hours for SEACISM were allocated on Argonne National Laboratory's LCF Intrepid, with a peak speed of 557 trillion calculations per second.

The scientists working on SEACISM are collaborating to extend Glimmer-CISM, a three-dimensional thermomechanical ice sheet that has recently been incorporated into the Community Earth System Model. CESM is a coupled global climate model comprised of atmosphere, land-surface, ocean, and sea-ice model components. SEACISM researchers are using the hours allocated in 2010 to prepare for the inclusion of the ice sheet model in simulations run as part of the Climate-Science End Station, an Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment, or INCITE, project that runs on the LCF systems.

"We need SEACISM to be working efficiently on LCF systems by next year," Evans said. The team is running test cases to validate newly developed model features. Once the code reproduces previous results, the team will move on to cases of increasing size and complexity. More detailed equations and finer grids build more complexity into the model, which allows better resolution of features such as the grounding line, a crucial juncture at which the floating ice shelf meets the land surface below it.

The SEACISM team is working on several journal articles about its research and will present intermediate results to the CESM's Land Ice Working Group in Boulder, Colo., in January. It hopes the model improvements will allow to provide simulation data about dynamics that will inform the next IPCC assessment report, expected in 2013.

Explore further: Search for ice sheet 'tipping point'

Related Stories

Search for ice sheet 'tipping point'

January 13, 2010

( -- A new study examines how ice sheets, such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, could become unstable as the world warms.

Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet melting, rate unknown

February 16, 2009

The Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are melting, but the amounts that will melt and the time it will take are still unknown, according to Richard Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences, Penn State.

Melting glacier worries scientists

July 25, 2005

Scientists monitoring a Greenland glacier have found it is moving into the sea three times faster than a decade ago, The Independent reported Monday.

New structure found deep within West Antarctic Ice Sheet

September 23, 2004

Ice sheet more susceptible to change than previously thought Scientists have found a remarkable new structure deep within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which suggests that the whole ice sheet is more susceptible to future ...

Recommended for you

New study brings Antarctic ice loss into sharper focus

February 21, 2018

A NASA study based on an innovative technique for crunching torrents of satellite data provides the clearest picture yet of changes in Antarctic ice flow into the ocean. The findings confirm accelerating ice losses from the ...

'Chameleon' ocean bacteria can shift their colors

February 21, 2018

Cyanobacteria - which propel the ocean engine and help sustain marine life - can shift their colour like chameleons to match different coloured light across the world's seas, according to research by an international collaboration ...

Stable gas hydrates can trigger landslides

February 21, 2018

Like avalanches onshore,many processes cause submarine landslides. One very widespread assumption is that they are associated with dissociating gas hydrates in the seafloor. However, scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.4 / 5 (9) Feb 28, 2011
Right now we don't know enough to predict the dynamics of the ice sheets...

Wrong. As Warmists have told us repeatedly in the comments here, calving of ice sheets cannot be due to any other reason than apocalyptic Global-Whatever-They're-Calling-It-This-Week. It is NEVER a natural process, and therefore could never have occurred before the invention of the dreaded SUV. They've told us it has already been proven by the omniscient computer models, so what is the need for this stupid "study" anyway?

Professor Evans, we're warning you. Unless your "study" comes to the right conclusions, you can kiss your future grant money adios muchachos.
2 / 5 (5) Feb 28, 2011
I'm not going to get into that again geosktr. We know that all computer models are good and that absolutely everything can be predicted with a computer with absolute certainty. That is settled and we all agree. Just keep sending money and it will all be okay.

So, without getting into any kind of political or philosophical debate, I'd just like to say that I think these guys have some of the best acronyms I've ever seen. They are way cooler than the Pentagon.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 03, 2011
Well the problem for both of you, Geokstr and Swifty is that apocalyptic Global warming IS THE CAUSE of the ice sheet breakup. All that the article confirms that is that big computers have modeled it.
Deniers. Milk toast lovers.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.