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NCSA visualizations help capture ‘Dynamic Earth’

A team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications created data-driven scientific visualizations of Hurricane Katrina and the harsh terrain of Venus for “Dynamic Earth,” a new immersive digital fulldome production that follows the trail of energy that flows from the sun into the interlocking systems that shape our climate: the atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere.

The film, narrated by actor Liam Neeson, will debut Feb. 4 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) during the annual meeting of IMERSA, an association of giant screen professionals, and will be distributed worldwide by Spitz, Inc. and Evans & Sutherland.

“‘Dynamic Earth’ melds together the educational, scientific, and entertainment values that are the hallmarks of the planetarium community,” says Mike Bruno, co-producer of “Dynamic Earth” and Spitz creative media director. “It’s especially great when an effort like this produces a program that is as beautiful as it is educational. This show is action-packed as well as visually stunning.”

Based on satellite data and supercomputer simulations, NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Lab created three key sequences for the film: a full-motion visualization of Hurricane Katrina; a detailed recreation of Earth’s hellish alter ego, Venus; and a depiction of the heliosphere based on recent insights gained by the Cassini and IBEX missions.

Director Thomas Lucas says Venus serves as a way to show the extreme power of high CO2 concentrations, calling it “a planet gone wrong.”

“We wanted to show how Earth deals with a major external force, the solar wind. Venus doesn’t have a magnetic field like Earth does,” he explains. “Part of the secret of Earth’s success is its ability to fend off the solar particles that strip Venus’s atmosphere of lighter elements such as oxygen and hydrogen. Earth takes in a portion of the solar energy that comes its way and uses it to drive its climate systems.”

The Venus sequence takes viewers across the planet’s hostile surface to the Sapas Mons crater, where a volcano spews smoke and lava. NASA’s Magellan Mission to Venus provided data about the topography of Venus, and scientist David Grinspoon from the Denver Museum advised the AVL team.

Creating a realistically blighted Venusian landscape was challenging and required significant computational power.

“It took a lot of computing and required a lot of memory. We rendered the scene as a series of separate layers to fit within the memory on our cluster, which allowed for iteration of layer elements and provided flexibility in the final image composite,” says Robert Patterson, AVL senior research artist.

The Katrina visualization was equally complex, consuming months of computing time and human effort. A hurricane research team led by Wei Wang at the National Center for Atmospheric Research computed the evolution of the storm using a complex numerical weather prediction model. Running this mathematical model on NCAR’s Bluefire supercomputer yielded terabytes of data, which AVL then transformed into a striking animation of the 36-hour period when the storm is gaining energy over the warm ocean. Volume-rendered clouds show abundant moisture. Trajectories follow moist air rising into intense “hot tower” thunderstorms and trace strong winds around the eye wall. The sun, moon, and stars show the passage of time.

“You see the majesty of the hurricane from a distance, and as you go in you see the inner workings and details of the simulation,” Patterson says.

“Our team adapted AVL’s software to handle the data-intensive visualizations,” says Donna Cox, leader of the Advanced Visualization Lab. “We enjoyed working with the Dynamic Earth Production Group. They understood and appreciated the technical challenges that we were facing to render the shots.”

“Dynamic Earth” is the result of a two-year collaboration between Spitz Creative Media, AVL, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio and Thomas Lucas Productions, Inc., in association with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The collaborating teams previously produced “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity,” which has been seen by millions of people in 15 languages at nearly 200 theaters around the world.

“The NCSA team has a real passion for taking people to places they’ve never been,” Lucas says. “Their approach is to delve into a deeper reality that’s illuminated by scientific investigation. They consistently produce sequences that are dramatic and beautiful, while being informed by intensive supercomputer-based modeling.”

Lucas also praises the AVL’s attention to detail. “The NCSA team simply cannot operate without the end goal being a perfect product,” he says. “On these big screen projects, it’s so crucial, because any imperfections that might be there will be magnified. These giant dome screens demand not only drama but incredible details and camera movements that really pull you along.”

For more information about “Dynamic Earth,” see For details on licensing, contact Mike Bruno at or 610-459-5200 x173.

NCSA team:
Donna Cox
Robert Patterson
AJ Christensen
Stuart Levy
Alex Betts
Jeff Carpenter

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