Thursday, November 1, 2012

CI-WATER and the Supercomputer

The Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin is a magnificent water system that stretches from Wyoming all the way to California. It touches seven states in the western US, including huge expanses of Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Almost 30 million people depend on and use the Basin for water. Headwater states, like Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, have to ensure that Lower Basin States receive their obligated water allotment, as described in the 1922 Colorado River Basin Compact. The problem is, western states are experiencing expanding populations with increasing demand for urban and agricultural water use. Population expansion in the Upper Basin States will not only add to the strain on the Basin’s water resources, it may also strain inter-state relationships as it becomes harder for them to meet the water obligations to Lower Basin States described in the Compact. Fortunately for the west, researchers are already looking at these issues, and they’re doing so with the help of the NSF EPSCoR grant called CI-Water.
The CI-Water grant is a three year award shared between the University of Wyoming, Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and Utah State University. Together, the four universities, among other projects, are working to address and avert the problems looming for the Colorado River Basin by mapping, modeling and creating the tools to better understand the Basin. Dr. Fred Ogden and Dr. Craig Douglas of UW are taking the lead on mapping and modeling the Basin.
NWSC off of I-80 west of Cheyenne, WY.
Mapping and modeling require significant computer power and memory. Most computers however, do not allow for the resolution and accuracy that Dr. Ogden and Dr. Douglas are looking for in their models. In order to achieve the scale they’re looking for, they need a supercomputer that can perform calculations at fast speeds, render data into models and provide a resolution vastly higher than what is currently available. It just so happens that Wyoming has such a computer, as of October 15th, 2012.
For seven years, Wyoming and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), with support from the National Science Foundation, have been planning and working towards building a supercomputing facility. This month, the years of planning and work came to an end with the opening of the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC). The $74 million center houses the $30 million supercomputer, Yellowstone, which Dr. Ogden and Dr. Craig will use to model the Colorado River Basin.
Yellowstone is ranked in the top 25 list of fastest computers on Earth. It can perform 15 quadrillion (that is, 15,000,000,000,000,000) basic calculations per second. This is equivalent to everyone on the planet conducting 200,000 calculations per second simultaneously. Yellowstone can also store 11 petabytes of data, which is approximately equal to the total amount of data stored at the Library of Congress. This supercomputer opens the doors of opportunity for Wyoming researchers by giving them a tool that they have not previously had access to. It will put them on the cutting edge of science, especially regarding the environment.
Yellowstone, the supercomputer housed at NWSC.
For Dr. Ogden and Dr. Douglas, Yellowstone’s ability to synthesize large, varied data sets in a relatively short amount of time and produce accurate, usable models of the real world make all the difference in the world for their research. These models will be more complex and at a resolution 100 times higher than models produced on regular computers, which means that they will help inform policies and management decisions with more accuracy than before. The models produced by Yellowstone will be used by CI-Water to understand how population changes and water management are impacting the basin, what that means for the future of water in the west, and how we can begin planning, so that twenty years from now there is still enough water for everyone. These models and data will be an important part of the second annual CI-Water Symposium as the four universities look towards sharing information with stakeholders and decision makers, so that better plans for the future are possible.
For more information about water in the west and UW’s research in this area, visit
For more information about Yellowstone, NWSC and a virtual tour, visit and Or, visit for more in-depth stories about the Yellowstone supercomputer, NWSC and UW researchers.
NWSC also has a visitor center with hands-on displays and activities, which is open from 8-5 Monday through Friday and 8-4 on Saturday. The center is located 5 miles west of Cheyenne, WY off of I-80.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of, the University of Wyoming, UCAR 

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