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Computer, marine scientists collaborate to predict flow of toxic waters from Katrina

September 28, 2005

CHAPEL HILL — In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, scientists and research centers from across the country came together to generate information on the contaminated floodwaters and offer it to hazardous materials experts and public health officials.

In a matter of hours, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Marine Sciences Program and Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), together with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), played a key role in that effort by providing rapid-response computing and modeling capability.

Floodwaters containing organic and chemical pollutants such as sewage and oil still cover swaths of Mississippi and Louisiana. To aid cleanup, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coast Survey Development Laboratory (CSDL), along with UNC faculty, have been developing forecasts that will predict the circulation of those foul waters.

A group of researchers, including Drs. Richard Luettich and Brian Blanton, marine scientists in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, has developed a three-dimensional computer program that can be used to model water levels and flow. This program, “ADCIRC,” is what experts call a hydrodynamic code. Previously, the code was used largely for after-the-fact analyses of coastal circulation, but researchers now believe it can help produce answers during a crisis.

Blanton and Luettich, assistant research professor and professor of marine sciences, respectively, knew that to simulate the required 60 days of water velocity and water surface elevation they would need more computational power then they had at the university. They asked UNC’s Dr. Daniel A. Reed for help — based on their NOAA–funded collaboration with RENCI — to establish a computational system with Web access for rapid-response forecasting to severe weather.

Reed is Chancellor’s Eminent professor and vice chancellor for information technology at UNC. North Carolina’s 2005-06 budget includes $5.9 million in new funding for RENCI, a collaboration of UNC, Duke and NC State that is based on the Chapel Hill campus and run by Reed. RENCI is slated to receive $11.8 million in recurring funding thereafter.

“If we had a month to do these runs, we could do them on our desktop computers or on a small cluster, but to do it literally overnight requires some horsepower,” Blanton said.

Reed, former director of NCSA, connected Blanton and Leuttich with NCSA, the National Science Foundation-supported supercomputing center located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Using NCSA’s Xeon system, a state-of-the-art parallel computer called Tungsten, the researchers were able to complete the required computational runs in about 15 hours, from midnight on Sept. 11 to mid-afternoon on Sept. 12.

“This is a prelude to the capabilities RENCI and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will provide to North Carolina, as we deploy our own large-scale computing infrastructure and continue to build disaster-response collaborations with North Carolina experts,” Reed said. “With state support, we are now building world-class capability for interdisciplinary research, technology transfer, economic development and engagement across North Carolina.”

Researchers at CSDL, with assistance from Luettich and Blanton, are working to integrate information provided by the computational calculations with NOAA’s North American Mesoscale Model, the primary weather forecasting model used by the National Weather Service, to simulate wind speed, direction and other weather factors. Their goal is to provide daily forecasts of coastal circulation and pollutant concentrations in the Katrina-affected region, information that will be vital as cleanup efforts and recovery continue.

The two also have extended their work with RENCI, Reed and colleagues to analyze various aspects of last weekend’s Hurricane Rita and its effects in Texas and Louisiana.

“We are trying to be prepared and generate reliable information that the hazardous materials experts will need to have,” said CSDL scientist Jesse Feynen. “We’re doing that, and we’re doing it quickly.”

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