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. If you could find out today what the weather would be like each day for the rest of your life, would you want to know? Why or why not? Explain your answer in a sentence or two.
    [anno: Answers will vary. Students may want to know what the weather would be like so that they could plan what to wear and when to go on a vacation. Students may not want to know what the weather would be like because it would take an element of surprise out of finding out what the weather will be from week to week.]
  2. What are the benefits of protecting a city, such as Tokyo, from a typhoon? Think about natural disasters that have occurred recently. What would be the benefits of predicting when a natural disaster might occur?
    [anno: The benefits of predicting when a natural disaster, such as a typhoon or a tidal wave, might occur include warning people so that they could protect their homes and get to a safe place. People would also be able to protect their livestock and pets. Supplies could be brought into an area ahead of time to help people handle the disaster.]