Humans have failed to predict the weather for millennia.
A supercomputer in Wyoming may change that.
Its name is Yellowstone and it is the brainchild of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and IBM. It makes 1.5 quadrillion computations per second and is 72,288 times faster than your average laptop computer.
Yellowstone may be the key to forecasting the weather better than ever before while making renewable energy sources more reliable. Pinning the computer as a panacea may seem like a fool’s errand, but it has the faith of preeminent researchers across the globe. The breadth of Yellowstone’s capabilities is so large that researches from around the world are waiting in line to run experiments on the machine.
NCAR is 200 percent over requested allocations for running simulations on Yellowstone, said Aaron Andersen, deputy director for operations and services at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputer Center in Cheyenne.
The machine is working between 96 and 98 percent of its capacity at any given time, he said.
“We’ve done a lot of work to make sure the machine is full,” he said.
In its first year of operation, Yellowstone has explored the nature of tornadoes, hurricanes, water shortages, solar patterns and wind. Scientists hope it will give them a better understanding of the world. Energy companies hope it will make them more money.
The supercomputer sits a few miles from the Happy Jack Wind Farm outside of Cheyenne. The turbines are visible in the distance.
On a warm day in November, the turbines moved sluggishly despite the wind.
Researchers at NCAR and the University of Wyoming are hoping to alleviate the problem by giving utility companies better data to make enhanced decisions about where to install turbines to get the most bangs for their bucks. While the Happy Jack Wind Farm was having a slow morning, Yellowstone was likely working computations to study how wind moves around mountains, travels at night and ricochets off turbines.
Ten years ago this wasn’t being done, said Sue Haupt, director of the Weather Systems Assessment Program for NCAR.
“It’s situational awareness,” she said.
The supercomputer is a game changer because it has the ability to model whole wind farms and simulate weather patterns that span from coast to coast. The advanced modeling techniques provide scientists with a detailed picture of when and why turbines turn.
The data spewing out of Yellowstone will also help preserve turbines. In an ideal world, a turbine should last 20 years, Haupt said. But their actual lifespan has been less than 10, she said.
Atmospheric turbulence known as eddies is the problem. They cause vibrations that beat on gear boxes and elicit other damages that prematurely deteriorate turbines. Yellowstone will one day be able to lay out a plan for turbine engineers to create turbines that can withstand eddies, Haupt said.
“Eddies are just a fact of life,” she said.
By plugging in data from NASA satellites, researchers at NCAR have also been able to run simulations that predict weather patterns across the nation that range from 15 minutes to six hours from the present. After enough test runs, NCAR scientists hope the data will delineate precise cloud movements and other weather fronts that will give utility companies accurate timetables for when to take renewables online and offline.
Weather isn’t static, Haupt said, and Yellowstone’s data will one day be able to give utilities something they’ve never had before: More time to plan ahead.
With a 24 hours’ notice, utility companies will be able to know when to switch from coal or natural gas to a renewable source.
The foresight could be lucrative.
“We want to make them more money,” said Jonathan Naughton, a mechanical engineering professor and director of UW’s Wind Energy Research Center.
As wind power use gains momentum, wind farms continue to become larger and larger, Naughton said. He and his colleagues are researching the best way to lay out turbines for harvesting wind.
Smaller wind farms usually sit in a linear row so wind doesn’t have to recycle from one turbine to another. But in larger farms where turbines are stacked in rows. The wind will pass through one turbine and lose energy before it enters the next, Naughton said.
Known as a wake, Naughton and his peers are looking to capture the 40 to 50 percent of energy lost in passing from one turbine to the next.
They are doing “massive simulations” to figure out how to capture reinvigorated wind after it passes through one turbine before it enters into the next, he said.
For turbine engineers, UW’s data will be like a car engineer learning more about the fuel that goes into an engine, Naughton said.
“We had ideas but we needed the horse power of Yellowstone to have the simulations we could work with,” he said.
UW is one school in a number of higher education institutions accessing Yellowstone, but it has a home field advantage.
UW pumped $20 million into Yellowstone and will add $1 million each year for the next 20 years. The payoff is that it doesn’t have to wait in a long line for access to the computer. It is guaranteed 20 percent of Yellowstone’s computing space.
Aside from wind projects, UW researchers have used Yellowstone to study seismic activity and the effects of pine beetle infestations on the water flow in the Green River Basin. Researchers have also used the computer to look at the Colorado Basin water supply and oil and natural gas supplies.
Many more projects will be coming down the pike. Yellowstone’s designers made sure of it.
Andersen and facility operations manager Gary New designed the building so the computer and its data storage area can double in size.
Yellowstone is festooned with braids of yellow Ethernet cords and orange fiber-optic cables that run along thousands of processors stored in refrigerator-like cabinets in a temperature-controlled room. New and Andersen expect there to be more in the future. Hard drives sit in units that look like a mix between a greenhouse and a storage shed.
“The computer is creating a ton of data,” Andersen said. “You need some place to store it.”
The mammoth computer refrains from overheating thanks to a tower-controlled evaporative cooling system designed similarly to a car radiator that uses a water loop to act as the medium for convection.
Cheyenne Light and Power provides energy to the facility. Ten percent of the energy fueling the supercomputer and the facility comes from wind energy produced at the Happy Jack Wind Farm. Traditional resources — such as coal — power the remainder.
Just like the research being performed using Yellowstone, A complex like NCAR’s in Cheyenne wasn’t something that existed 10 years ago.
“It’s world-class right now,” Andersen said.