Will geoengineering save us from a certain doom

Ice sheet modelling plays a key role in climate research. Visualization by Jyrki Hokkanen, CSC.

Will geoengineering save us from a certain doom?

Heta Koski

Renowned glacier researcher emphasizes the role of high-performance computing in climate research

As the climate gets warmer and ice sheets start to melt, the sea level rises rapidly and millions of people lose their homes – and we have a global disaster on our hands. That's the worst-case scenario. However, we still can't accurately predict the effects of global warming on ice sheets and sea level rise.

Researchers are constantly trying to develop new and more accurate models to evaluate the future of ice sheets and the entire planet. One of the most advanced ice sheet models is Elmer/Ice. The development of this open source finite element software began on top of CSC's open source multi physics code Elmer nearly ten years ago as a collaboration between researchers working in Finland, France and Japan.

In-depth understanding of ice with computing

Elmer/Ice is unique. The software stands out from other ice sheet codes due to the fact that it doesn't "cut corners". It is able to solve ice flow equations with very high accuracy without imposing any preliminary assumptions or simplifications. However, doing this requires enormous computing power. 

"It would not have been possible to implement many of the modeling needs of our research without the constantly evolving computing environment and software development we have in Finland," says John C. Moore, Research Professor at the Arctic Centre of University of Lapland. He is also Chief Scientist at the College of Global Change and Earth System Science of Beijing Normal University, and a Guest Professor at the Polar Research Institute of China.

Professor Moore has studied climate change and ice sheets for over 20 years. In spring 2016, he was invited to join the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters as a member. In his introduction speech at the Academy's New Members' Night in September, Professor Moore emphasized the role of high-performance computing in climate research, and the importance of CSC's contribution to his research in particular.

Professor John C Moore at the New Members' Night of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in September. Image: The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters

The two faces of ice – fluid and solid

When talking about periods of time longer than days, ice is a fluid with high viscosity. It flows – although very slowly, and in most cases too slowly for a human eye to see. Codes like Elmer/Ice seek to model this kind of flow as accurately as possible.

But when scaling the time window to hours and minutes, ice behaves like a brittle solid that can crack and break. Very accurate tools to research this kind of behavior have not been available, such as for modeling the calving of ice sheets. A new code (HiDEM), recently developed by Senior Application Specialist Jan Åström at CSC in Finland, is a tool to compute this kind of ice behavior. This too requires very intensive computing.

 "For example, running HiDEM code could easily fill up half the capacity of supercomputer Sisu," says Thomas Zwinger, Senior Applications Specialist and glacier researcher at CSC. "Our next goal is to combine these two codes to get more accurate results on how glaciers behave." 

Direct impact on decision-making

Ice sheet research has a very direct link to decision-making and politics. For example, the latest assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2013, cited nine scientific studies that used Elmer/Ice. Professor Moore authored 14 of the articles cited in the report.

There are great expectations towards research, because if the worst-case scenarios come true, both the local and global consequences can be dramatic. For instance, it has already been suggested that one of the reasons behind the conflict in Syria might have been migration due to drought caused by climate change. Socioeconomic and political problems might very well rise to be more acute issues than the imminent natural disasters in your own backyard.

"Until now we've been mostly analyzing the climate system, but now we are doing more research on how to manipulate the climate system to fix the damage we've already done," Moore says.

Like a lung transplant for a smoker?

Generally speaking, we have three options. Plan A is to simply stop doing the things we know have a negative effect on the climate. Plan B is a more realistic option: Keep doing things that accelerate global warming, but at the same time control their negative effects with geoengineering. The last option, plan C, doesn't sound tempting – just continue business as usual and deal with the very likely natural disasters we're about to face.

The processes that relate to global warming and geoengineering are so complex that testing them in laboratory conditions is not necessarily possible.

"Basically, this planet is our laboratory. If we mess things up, we destroy ourselves. This is why it's very important to try to model and understand different aspects of geoengineering in advance," Zwinger says.

Geoengineering is expected to provide solutions, but it is certainly not without problems.

"Is choosing geoengineering like a smoker choosing a lung transplant instead of quitting tobacco?" Moore asks, and leaves us to think about the answer.

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