Distributed computing project has bad news for climate change

A recent report in Nature covers the first findings from the distributed computing project, climateprediction.net. The report finds that global temperatures could rise by up to 11C. This is two times the amount of other studies.

The project is remarkable because it utilized distributed computing. Distributed computing spreads out the computer processing and analysis among multiple CPUs (the chips in your computer that do the number crunching). Often these chips are located in separate computers. What’s even cooler is that the distributed computer can be your home computer. Instead of using an incredibly fast computer with multiple processors or a supercomputer, you download the software to your own PC, which runs the program while your computer is idle. The application generally shows up as a nice screensaver.

Distributed computing was first used by the SETI@Home (SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Life) project, in which separate PCs sift through packets of radio-telescope data, looking for evidence of extraterrestrial communication. It has since moved on to analyzing data for pulsars and studying protein-related diseases.

An excellent synopsis of the climate change project can be found at the BBC. They report that “More than 95,000 people have registered [to download the software], from more than 150 countries; their PCs have between them run more than 60,000 simulations of future climate. Each PC runs a slightly different computer simulation examining what happens to the global climate if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere double from pre-industrial levels – which may happen by the middle of the century. ”

Of course, the accuracy of any model is just as dependent on its underlying assumptions as its computational power. So it will be a while before we can assess the accuracy of the dramatic temperature rise predicted by the project. However, distributed computing holds great promise for climate change, especially as the models increase in complexity and are reaching the upper limit of what can be feasibly and affordably accomplished in standard computing frameworks.

(An irreverent note. To date, distributed computing has been devoted to very serious projects. However, I’m waiting for the first silly project. How about a Shakespeare project that simulates millions of monkeys? I’d download the software.)

4 Responses to “Distributed computing project has bad news for climate change”

  1. Liam says:

    As sort a similar, but less sort of public-domain idea is the idea of grid computing, something which recently got a mention in the press with Sun Microsystems’ announcement covered by the BBC, in that you basically rent computer time from them, with the assumption that using their grid will be considerably cheaper than building your own such grid, or having to deal with some of the technical problems of the more decentralized model like the one climateprediction.net used.

    It is interesting to see the dependancy on the ‘climate sensitivity’ parameter, as well as the effects the different models they used. It’s certainly very convincing to see that even with a wide range of inputs, the result is a fairly substantial rise in temperature.

    That being said, monkeys have been superseded, pigeons are the new monkeys.

  2. sieber says:

    It’s fascinating that Google had to explicitly state that the pigeon site was a joke. Did some people actually believe this?

    That being said, the pigeon site is hilarious.

  3. Kyle Janison says:

    There’s a great new astrobiology blog, run by newspaper editor Rob Bignell, at http://alienlifeblog.blogspot.com/. It includes roundups of the latest news from the various scientific fields that form astrobiology and information about SETI.