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Can You Imagine: Predicting crop yields with supercomputers and satellites?

What if we could predict, in real-time, crop productivity and water use for the entire United States corn belt? Using the help of NCSA’s Blue Waters supercomputer, Kaiyu Guan, principal investigator on the Geophysical Research Letters study, and assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Blue Waters professor at NCSA has found a way to simulate and project crop growth and water use to help ensure food security and environmental sustainability, while also optimizing farm efficiency for the entire American corn belt.

“Using seasonal forecasts and satellite data, we developed a very advanced yield prediction system for both the national and county levels. Our research demonstrates that we can do better than the USDA’s real-time estimation,” says Kaiyu Guan. When put to the test, Guan’s tool outperformed the USDA’s predictions for 2018 end of season corn yields with greater accuracy. Guan’s approach allows more accurate end-of-season predictions to be made earlier in the season. At the end of the growing season, when the corn harvest is complete, it is possible to look back and evaluate the accuracy of each previous month’s prediction. Between 2010 and 2016, for example, the WASDE report for June was off, on average, by 17.66 bushels per acre. For the same time frame, Guan’s estimate was only off by 12.75 bushels per acre. In August, WASDE was off by an average of 5.63 bushels per acre, whereas Guan and Peng’s system got the number down to 4.37.

Guan and his colleagues are not the first to use satellite data to try to predict crop yield, but their combined use of seasonal climate prediction, along with crop growth information from satellite imagery, is unique.

Due to the wide-breadth and innovative nature of Guan’s work, he was recently awarded the 2018 Global Environmental Change Early Career award from the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which seeks to award outstanding interdisciplinary contributions in research, education, or society in the area of global environmental change.


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50® for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

About Blue Waters

The Blue Waters petascale supercomputer is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, and is the fastest sustained supercomputer on a university campus. Blue Waters uses hundreds of thousands of computational cores to achieve peak performance of more than 13 quadrillion calculations per second. Blue Waters has more memory and faster data storage than any other open system in the world. Scientists and engineers across the country use the computing and data power of Blue Waters to tackle a wide range of challenges. Recent advances that were not possible without these resources include computationally designing the first set of antibody prototypes to detect the Ebola virus, simulating the HIV capsid, visualizing the formation of the first galaxies and exploding stars, and understanding how

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