When the Earth Simulator, which is based just outside Tokyo, was turned on in 2002 it was the fastest super computer in the world. This caused a crisis in confidence in the United States, which had long been the leader when it comes to super computers.
Still a powerful machine, the Earth Simulator has since slipped down to tenth place on the Top 500 list of the 500 most powerful publicly known computer systems in the world and the US is back in the lead. But this doesn’t worry Tetsuya Sato, director of the Earth Simulator Centre. To him, the important thing is what the computer can do for humankind.
It is capable of mirroring the Earth using holistic simulations of global climate, in both the atmosphere and the oceans, down to a precision of 10km. The Earth Simulator also uses information from satellites and other observation points to track rainfall, sea temperatures and movements in the Earth’s crust. This helps scientists predict natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, as well as global changes in climate, including, for example, global warming.
The Earth Simulator is composed of 62 super-computers, which are capable of 35.86 Tflops (tera floating point operations per second). Peak performance is 40 Tflops. The main memory is huge at 10TB and it has 2.5PB (petabytes) of storage, says Sato.
“The predictions we can make are more and more scientifically sound,” says Sato. “The Earth Simulator has changed the concept of simulation. It has made it possible to deal with the whole [global] system at once because of its memory and speed [capacities].”
Previously it was possible to simulate only parts of the system, he says, and this did not provide enough information to predict how the whole global system would evolve.
“Now human beings can make predictions of the future evolution of the whole system — the whole globe,” he says. “That makes the Earth Simulator a useful tool for humankind.”
The Earth Simulator is now at an intermediate stage in its development so will continue to grow, says Sato. In the future, Sato’s goal is to combine two simulators — a microscopic computer and a macroscopic one — that can exchange information and so come up with even more accurate predictions.
Sato is in New Zealand to speak at the Digital Earth Summit on sustainability, which is being held in Auckland from August 27-30.