Gore says supercomputing can be killer app in climate change

Former VP aims to stir passion and urgency about climate change at SC09 conference

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Former Vice President Al Gore today told an audience of scientists, programmers and system builders at the SC09 conference here that their work is essential in the effort to avoid global catastrophe caused by climate change.

Supercomputers, he said, can be used to show the world how climate change is affecting the earth in human terms. The visualization capabilities of supercomputers can produce a visceral reaction to the potential for catastrophe. "Supercomputing has given us the most powerful tool in the history of civilization," said Gore.

Making climate change real requires improved simulations of what is actually happening in the world and how these changes are unfolding, said Gore.

The crisis of climate change, said Gore, "masquerades as an abstraction" because many of its impacts are isolated and not obviously connected.

He likened the need for a uniform, encompassing perspective to the realization that arrived once man orbited the Earth and found that "the atmosphere is actually an incredibly thin shell."

"How can you make this phenomenon real enough to trigger the kinds of responses that are appropriate for our survival? That is one challenge that I would urge you to think about," said Gore, to the large crowd, many of whom gave him a standing ovation at the end of his talk.

In some ways, Gore's talk dovetailed a presentation earlier this week by Intel Corp. CTO Justin Rattner, who told a keynote audience that the supercomputer industry needs a "killer app," which he argued is 3D Internet. Rattner's presentation was filled with demonstrations of avatars and promises that the compute power needed for these visualizations will lift spending on high performance computing.

Without investing in the "killer app," Rattner warned that the industry is "in for relatively tough times."

But where Rattner talked about high performance computing's potential in the commercial market, Gore spoke to that attendees as if they were scientists on a mission, that the work they do is "crucial" and "and important to virtually every challenge that our civilization is now facing."

At the conference, visualizations of climate models were in display on the trade show floor. The conference also focused on how to reduce energy usage of large systems. Climate and environment permeates the high performance computing research community.

Gore's also urged supercomputing community to speak out and to get involved politically.

Brian Dobbins, who does parallel programming and HPC support at Yale University, said afterwards that "It's always good to hear someone say it, but there is just so much frustration with the political process, especially in this country. You hear it and it gets you momentarily motivated and then you look at Congress and you get just totally crushed. It is something that I take away and I think about."

Dave Glover, who works on HPC systems for an oil firm he didn't want identified, said he has agreed with Gore for a long time. "Al Gore is for environment what Carl Sagan was for astrophysics, cosmology - he is trying to popularize the subject."

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