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New supercomputer aids climate research in US’ top coal state

By Mead Gruver  /  AP, CHEYENNE, Wyoming

A supercomputer named Cheyenne is pictured at the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Oct. 26 last year.

Photo: AP

A new supercomputer in the top coal-mining state in the US has begun critical climate-change research with support from even some global warming doubters, but scientists worry that US President Donald Trump could cut funding for such programs.

The US$30 million, house-sized supercomputer named Cheyenne belongs to a federally funded research center. It got to work a few weeks ago crunching numbers for several ambitious projects, from modeling air currents at wind farms to figuring out how to better predict weather months to years in advance.

It is the fastest computer in the Rocky Mountain West — three times faster than the four-year-old supercomputer named Yellowstone it is replacing and 20th-fastest in the world.

Capable of 5.34 quadrillion calculations per second, Cheyenne is 240,000 times faster than a new, high-end laptop.

Located in a windy business park near the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputing Center that houses the water-cooled machine continues to enjoy support even from Wyoming’s coal cheerleaders who doubt humankind is warming the Earth.

“Before we start making policy decisions on this, the science has got to be good,” Wyoming Mining Association executive director Travis Deti said.

The vast majority of peer-reviewed studies, science organizations and climate scientists have found the Earth is warming and that the warming is of human origin and a problem, but Wyoming’s relationship with climate science is complicated at best.

The University of Wyoming in 2012 removed a campus artwork made of charred logs after the fossil-fuel industry objected to the piece’s climate-change message. The state has also vacillated on whether and how K-12 students should learn about climate change.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who is suing to block efforts by former US president Barack Obama’s administration to limit carbon emissions from power plants and other sources, calls himself a climate-change skeptic.

Still, he supports the supercomputer’s role in driving Wyoming’s small technology sector, spokesman David Bush said.

Even so, scientists worry that Trump, who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to harm US economic interests, could cut such projects.

About 70 percent of the supercomputer’s cost comes from the US National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency with a US$7.5 billion budget.

Traditionally the foundation has had bipartisan support, but some Republicans have suggested redirecting the agency away from the earth sciences — and from climate change research in particular.

In December last year, about 800 US scientists, including 23 affiliated with the University of Wyoming and three at the organization that runs the supercomputer, signed an open letter urging Trump to take climate change seriously.

“To be ignorant doesn’t really prevent it from happening,” said Shane Murphy, a University of Wyoming assistant professor and climate researcher who signed.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s plans for funding the science foundation.

Like its predecessor, Yellowstone, Cheyenne is to help better predict weather and, over the long term, climate change.

“We believe that doing better predictions of those things have apolitical benefits — saving lives and saving money, and improving outcomes for businesses and farmers,” said Rich Loft, a National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) supercomputing specialist.

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