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Understanding space weather with Blue Waters

Homayoun Karimabadi from the University of California-San Diego explains how his team is using the Blue Waters Early Science System to investigate magnetic reconnection, which triggers storms on the sun and allows the sun’s radiation to enter Earth’s magnetosphere.

You’re using the Early Science System to model magnetic reconnection. Can you explain why this is an important target for research?

Earth is embedded in the sun’s atmosphere, so we are exposed to storms on the sun—so-called space weather. Because this space weather affects the Earth and our technological system—such as communications satellites, GPS signals, power grids, etc.—there is an urgent need to develop accurate forecasting capabilities. The dominant mechanism that triggers storms on the sun and the process that enables the radiation from the sun to enter the Earth’s magnetosphere is magnetic reconnection. So better understanding of magnetic reconnection can lead to better understanding of and prediction of disruptive space weather.

What is particularly computationally demanding about this research, and why is Blue Waters a good system for meeting your simulation needs?

Magnetic reconnection is initiated on the electron scale but leads to global rearrangement of magnetic fields. This multi-scale structure of reconnection has posed a major computational challenge. Using petascale computers, we are, for the first time, able to conduct 3D large-scale kinetic simulations that include the important electron physics. Blue Waters will be one of the fastest computers in the world, and with this added computational power, we will be able to address new aspects of reconnection that would be out of reach otherwise.

How is access to the Early Science System helping your research?

We have developed a theory for a particular aspect of reconnection that we would like to verify through 3D simulations. The ESS is quite valuable in that it (a) has given us a head start in adapting and optimizing our codes in preparation for the full-scale Blue Waters system that will be available later this year, and (b) will enable us to complete our research and publish the results.

How have you benefitted from working with NCSA staff through your PRAC allocation?

We have received strong support from the NCSA staff in benchmarking and optimizing our code.

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