NCSA’s Blue Waters supercomputer helps map the poles

09.13.18 -

Tracking polar ice melting in both the Arctic and Antarctic, noting the clear-cutting of trees in the Arctic Circle or discovering unknown penguin colonies are just three of the observations scientists have made as the result of improved polar region topographical maps created using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

Last week, researchers released the first high-resolution, high-accuracy terrain map of Antarctica. The Reference Elevation Model of Antarctica (REMA) project, led by Ian Howat and other researchers at The Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, relied entirely on the computational and data resources of Blue Waters to run the SETSM software they developed that automated assembly of overlapping pairs of high-resolution satellite images to create the high-resolution, high-fidelity elevation maps. While the map images are impressive, it is at least equally important that the actual elevation data underlying the images is openly available so other researchers can computationally analyze the topology in numerous ways.

High-resolution maps of the Arctic region created by Paul Morin and the staff at the Polar Geospatial Center (PGC) at the University of Minnesota were released beginning two years ago under the ArcticDEM project.

The REMA project got its start as a Blue Waters Innovation and Exploration allocation. Five percent of the time on Blue Waters is set aside for projects that want to innovate and explore new uses for high performance computation and data analysis. As Blue Waters is composed of more than 700,000 processor cores, significantly more computing power than most available systems, it continues to provide a unique opportunity to perform groundbreaking work.

The REMA project was able to receive an allocation of time on Blue Waters after the ArcticDEM project showed the feasibility of the approach, which was allocated by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the funding agency for Blue Waters. The more than 1.2 million node (38.4 million core) hours awarded to REMA is one of the largest Blue Waters Innovation allocations. ArcticDEM started as the only larger Innovation allocation of 3 million node (96 million core) hours, which provided the ability to create elevation maps from stereo satellite images. ArcticDEM evolved into an NSF allocation to complete the Arctic.

The PGC staff and the Byrd Center staff collaborated with NCSA staff and on both mapping projects. The original satellite images are provided free to the teams through agreements with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) to enable creating open, sharable data.

"The work by the Blue Waters support team, including application and resource management specialists, on the earlier ArcticDEM mapping project enabled the REMA project to efficiently use the Blue Waters supercomputer concurrently with the other NSF allocated projects," notes Greg Bauer, applications support lead and co-principal investigator for the Blue Waters Project. "Both mapping projects also benefitted from Blue Waters' Petascale Application Improvement Discovery program. This program provided funds to the project science investigators to work with for improvement specialists to create and implement application improvements."

The new maps of Antarctica has naturally generated a media buzz, including a story in The New York Times.

National Science Foundation

Blue Waters is supported by the National Science Foundation through awards ACI-0725070 and ACI-1238993.