Weather Forecast for June 2263

Talk about long-range forecasts! What will the weather look like 50, 100, even 200 years from now? Incredibly, Japan's Earth Simulator, the world's largest and fastest supercomputer, is answering that question right now.

Earth Simulator does it by turning weather patterns, from the number of sunny days each year to the intensity of a monster tornado, into billions of bytes of information. Built by NEC of Tokyo, this megacomputer is larger than a football field. It's also unbelievably fast, performing more calculations in just one second (over 35 trillion!) than there are stars in our galaxy. That awesome power can output uncanny models of future climate.

Will ozone depletion and greenhouse gases alter Earth's climate in the 23rd century? Could coastal cities disappear beneath rising oceans, as global warming melts the polar ice caps? Like a “time machine,” Earth Simulator can model these future scenarios with unprecedented accuracy, helping researchers track how today's environmental problems—from pollution to fluorocarbons—can affect tomorrow.

But this marvel isn't just a “crystal ball” for predicting the distant future. Scientists are already using it to keep some of Japan's major cities safe from the threat of typhoons (tropical storms) that strike their coastlines each year.

Surprisingly, the weather wizard employs a computational strategy called vector processing—a technology once believed to be obsolete. Now, though, its blazing speed promises advances in almost every science, including tracking the movements of the Earth's crust to anticipate earthquakes, testing drugs inside a “virtual body” in the race to cure AIDS, and—to help officials protect cities from terrorism—even simulating the spread of biological weapons such as smallpox.

Vocabulary

depletion:
The using up of something.

fluorocarbon:
A chemical used in aerosol cans, refrigerants, plastics, and other materials.

ozone [layer]:
A region of the atmosphere containing a special form of oxygen that shields Earth from harmful radiation. The ozone layer can be damaged by certain kinds of pollution.

typhoon:
A severe tropical hurricane occurring in the western Pacific Ocean.

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Activity

  1. What instruments would be needed to get the data to enter into the Earth Simulator? Name at least three weather instruments and the kind of data they would provide to the Earth Simulator.
  2. What other kind of information might be useful in helping this supercomputer perform its calculations? Think of at least two other kinds of information that might be useful. Describe why that information might be useful. Write a few sentences to explain your answer.