Oak Ridge supercomputers provide first simulation of abrupt climate change

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At the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the world's fastest supercomputer for unclassified research is simulating abrupt climate change and shedding light on an enigmatic period of natural global warming in Earth's relatively recent history. The work, led by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), is featured in the July 17 issue of the journal Science and provides valuable new data about the causes and effects of global climate change.

This research is funded by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within DOE's Office of Science and by the National Science Foundation through its paleoclimate program and support of NCAR.

In Earth's 4.5-billion-year history, its climate has oscillated between hot and cold. Today our world is relatively cool, resting between ice ages. Variations in planetary orbit, solar output, and volcanic eruptions all change Earth's temperature. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, humans have probably warmed the world faster than nature has. The greenhouse gases we generate by burning fossil fuels and forests will raise the average global temperature 2 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 6 degrees Celsius) this century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates.

Most natural climate change has taken place over thousands or even millions of years. But an episode of abrupt climate change occurred over centuries—possibly decades—during Earth's most recent period of natural global warming, called the Bolling-Allerod warming. Approximately 19,000 years ago, ice sheets started melting in North America and Eurasia. By 17,000 years ago, the melting glaciers had dumped so much freshwater into the North Atlantic that it stopped the overturning ocean circulation, which is driven by density gradients caused by influxes of freshwater and surface heat. This occurrence led to a cooling in Greenland called the Heinrich event 1. The freshwater flux continued on and off until about 14,500 years ago, when it virtually stopped. Greenland's temperature then rose by 27 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) in several centuries, and the sea level rose about 16 feet (5 meters). The cause of this dramatic Bolling-Allerod warming has remained a mystery and source of intense debate.

'Now we are able to simulate these transient events for the first time,' says Zhengyu Liu, a University of Wisconsin professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and environmental studies whose team simulated the abrupt climate changes using DOE supercomputers at ORNL. The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility allocated supercomputing time through DOE's Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program. 'It represents so far the most serious validation test of our model capability for simulating large, abrupt climate changes, and this validation is critical for us to assess the model's projection of abrupt changes in the future,' according to Liu.

The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility is funded by the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research in DOE's Office of Science.

Liu, director of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Climatic Research, and his collaborator Bette Otto-Bliesner, an atmospheric scientist and climate modeler at NCAR, lead an interdisciplinary, multi-institution research group attempting the world's first continuous simulation of 21,000 years of Earth's climate history, from the last glacial maximum to the present, in a state-of-the-art climate model. The group will also extend the simulation 200 years into the future to forecast climate. The findings could provide great insight into the fate of ocean circulation in light of continued glacial melting in Greenland and Antarctica.

Three parts to abrupt change

Most climate simulations in comprehensive climate models so far are discontinuous, amounting to snapshots of century-sized time slices taken every 1,000 years or so. Such simulations are incapable of simulating abrupt transitions occurring on centennial or millennial timescales. Liu and Otto-Bliesner employ petascale supercomputers, capable of a quadrillion calculations each second, to stitch together a continuous stream of global climate snapshots and recover the virtual history of global climate in a motion picture. They use the Community Climate System Model (CCSM), a global climate model that includes coupled interactions between atmosphere, oceans, lands, and sea ice developed with primary funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DOE.

Based on insights gleaned from their continuous simulation, Liu and his colleagues propose a novel mechanism to explain the Bolling-Allerod warming observed in Greenland ice cores. The three-part mechanism they suggest matches the climate record.

First, one-third of the warming, or 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), resulted from a 45 parts-per-million increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the scientists posit. The cause of the carbon dioxide increase, however, is still a topic of active research, Liu says.

Second, another one-third of the warming was due to recovery of oceanic heat transport. When fresh meltwater flowed off the ice sheet, it stopped the overturning ocean current and in turn the warm surface current from low latitudes, leading to a cooling in the North Atlantic and nearby region. When the melting ice sheet was no longer dumping freshwater into the North Atlantic, the region began to heat up.

The last one-third of the temperature rise resulted from an overshoot of the overturning circulation. 'Once the glacial melt stopped, the enormous subsurface heat that had accumulated for 3,000 years erupted like a volcano and popped out over decades,' Liu hypothesizes. 'This huge heat flux melted the sea ice and warmed up Greenland.'

Liu and Otto-Bliesner's collaborators include Feng He, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is mainly responsible for the deglaciation modeling, as well as ocean modeler Esther Brady (NCAR), atmospheric scientist Robert Tomas (NCAR), glaciologists Peter Clark (Oregon State University) and Anders Carlson (University of Wisconsin-Madison), paleoceanographers Jean Lynch-Stieglitz (Georgia Institute of Technology) and William Curry (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), geochemist Edward Brook (Oregon State University), atmospheric modeler David Erickson (ORNL), computing expert Robert Jacob (Argonne National Laboratory), and climate modelers John Kutzbach (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Jun Cheng (Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology). 'This interdisciplinary team, each member contributing to a different aspect of the project, ranging from a proxy data interpretation to supercomputing coding, has been essential for the success of this project,' says Liu.

The 2008 simulations ran on a Cray X1E supercomputer named Phoenix and an even faster Cray XT system called Jaguar. The scientists used nearly a million processor hours in 2008 to run one-third of their simulation, from 21,000 years ago—the most recent glacial maximum—to 14,000 years ago—the planet's most recent major period of natural global warming. With 4 million INCITE processor hours allocated on Jaguar for 2009, 2010, and 2011, they will complete the simulation, capturing climate from 14,000 years ago to the present and projecting it 200 years into the future. 'This has been a dream run of both of ours for a long time,' says Otto-Bliesner. 'This was an opportunity to take advantage of the CCSM, the computing facility at Oak Ridge, and the INCITE call for proposals.' No other research group has successfully simulated such a long period in a comprehensive climate model.

Science-based forecasts

More accurately depicting the past means clearer insights into climate's outlook. 'The current forecast predicts the ocean overturning current is likely to weaken but not stop over the next century,' Liu says. 'However, it remains highly uncertain whether abrupt changes will occur in the next century because of our lack of confidence in the model's capability in simulating abrupt changes. Our simulation is an important step in assessing the likelihood of predicted abrupt climate changes in the future because it provides a rigorous test of our model against the major abrupt changes observed in the recent past.'

In 2004 and 2005, climate simulations on DOE supercomputers contributed data to a repository that scientists worldwide accessed to write approximately 300 journal articles. The published articles were cited in the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, which concluded that global warming is unequivocal and humans have had a substantial role since the mid-20th century.

Liu and Otto-Bliesner's simulations may soon find their way into IPCC's data repository and reports as other groups succeed in continuous simulation of past abrupt climate changes and demonstrate the results are reproducible. The simulations would thus be a resource for the paleo community at large. Meanwhile, Earth's climate continues to prove that change is an eternal constant. Understanding how we affect the rate of change is a grand challenge of our generation. Petascale computing may accelerate answers that in turn inform our policies and guide our actions.

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