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NCSA Visualizations Bring the Amazon to Life in Unprecedented Detail

The Amazon – the largest and most diverse tropical rainforest on Earth – has sometimes been described as the lungs of our planet because of its ability to draw in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the atmosphere.

Now, researchers are able to see the daily “beating heart” pattern of the Amazon, which begins as moisture-laden tropical winds from the Atlantic Ocean bring rainfall to the forest and evapotranspiration, or the movement of moisture through evaporation from soil and plants, puts the water back into the atmosphere. From there, the moisture moves from northeast to southwest, with some of the water vapor returning to the ground in early evening storms and some moving out of the Amazon Basin towards the Andes Mountains on strong nighttime and early morning winds.

“This ebb and flow of moisture over the rainforest, which is carried west towards the mountains as atmospheric water vapor, comes together to form a beating pattern,” explained Francina Dominguez, Ph.D., a hydroclimatologist and professor in the Climate, Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (CliMAS) Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “For the first time, we can see the diurnal cycle of transpiration in the Amazon and visually, it is a beating pattern.”

Francina Dominguez, a hydroclimatologist and professor in the Climate, Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (CliMAS) Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Dominguez was able to see the beating pattern and perform simulations of Amazon water vapor movement at a daily timescale in unprecedented detail, thanks to support from the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), an effort led by NCSA and funded by the National Science Foundation that linked researchers to powerful digital resources across the U.S. XSEDE concluded in 2022; however, Dominguez found funding for visualizing even higher resolution simulations in 2023 from Illinois Computes, a $50 million effort funded by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the U of I System that connects Illinois researchers to computing, visualization, data and other resources to accelerate their research. 

Through XSEDE and later Illinois Computes, Dominguez was able to team up with David Bock, lead visualization programmer at NCSA. Bock took data simulated by Dominguez and her team using the Weather Research Forecast (WRF) system, a mesoscale numerical weather prediction system, fed it into his custom software system, mapped the data to visual elements in the software and created a custom visual rendering.

“Custom software driven by the needs of the researcher is extremely important,” said Bock. “Using my system, we can explore and add new visualization features that fit the needs of the project. Everything I do is to enable the research.”

The results of the first collaboration between Bock and Dominguez resulted in a video that won best visualization at SC2020, the annual conference of high-performance computing and related technologies. In addition to being visually stunning, that first collaboration between Dominguez and Bock resulted in some research firsts. The research, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, used WRF to simulate moisture movement over the South American continent at a 20 x 20-kilometer grid resolution. The temporal resolution of the models focused on the daily movement of moisture in the region, whereas previous studies tracked water vapor movement at a monthly or greater timescale, said Dominguez. The research also implemented numerical water tracers within the WRF model. The tracers allowed the researchers to easily follow the water from the time it evaporates from the land until it falls as precipitation.

“The critical thing was the tracers,” said Dominguez. “We could follow water from evaporation and transpiration until it falls as precipitation. We can also see just how important that diurnal cycle is. You have not only transpiration, but precipitation and also the South American jet stream that sweeps moisture from the tropics, bringing it down further south. Because David (Bock) did the visualizations at such a high temporal resolution, I was able to see that beating pattern.”

Bock’s visualization was put to music and a narration by Dominguez, and since winning the SC2020 award, Dominguez has used it as an outreach tool to help scientists, policymakers and residents of the region understand the daily cycle of moisture through the Amazon, moisture sources and weather patterns in the Amazon and beyond, and changes in moisture dynamics caused by climate change and human activity such as deforestation.

“We’ve been able to quantify what would happen if we took out 30 to 35 percent of the forest,” said Dominguez. “In the regions with deforestation, we see an increase in temperatures and a decrease in precipitation, not because there is less water in the atmosphere but because (deforestation) is changing the wind patterns. When you change the wind patterns, you are reducing the precipitation in deforested regions.”

When you compare the simulated data to satellite data, these simulations are very, very close to what is actually happening. The video has been seen by politicians who are making decisions about climate change. Creating visualizations and videos that are true to the science is a great way to show the public what is happening.

David Bock, NCSA Lead Visualization Programmer

New Simulations and a New High-Res Video

Continental Scale visualization of FullCloud and specific humidity (QVAPOR). Winds at 1.5 kilometers above sea level and 2D accumulated precipitation above over South American continent.

Since the initial work funded by XSEDE, Dominguez has been able to continue working with Bock through her support from Illinois Computes. The results, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, are new, computationally intensive simulations visualized in a 4 x 4-kilometer grid. The new work is part of a massive scientific collaboration formed in 2019 called the South American Affinity Group (SAAG), which involves 160 scientists in more than 10 countries in South America, North America and Europe.

“The reason to do this is that there are some things you can’t see at the coarser resolution,” said Dominguez. “You can’t see convective storms and how they form; you just can’t get the physics of the storms.”

The new simulations required 48 million core hours on a supercomputer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The simulation visualized by Bock looks at the continent using historical data; the second assumes warmer temperatures due to climate change, allowing researchers to get a glimpse at how warming temperatures might impact the formation of clouds and storms over the continent and precipitation levels in the Amazon and across the continent. Using the SAAG researchers’ simulation of historical data, Bock created a visualization that shows winds, moisture fluxes, clouds and precipitation over the continent in unprecedented detail.

Dominguez said the new simulations give scientists much greater detail about evapotranspiration, cloud formation, precipitation, wind patterns, and the formation of thunderstorms in the Amazon and across the continent. As with the previous visualization, Dominguez worked with Bock to create a video that shows all these processes in a way that lay people – specifically politicians – can understand. The high-resolution visualization, when compared to the visualizations done earlier in her career, are like comparing “Super Mario Brothers from when I was a kid to the video games of today,” she said.

Thanks to David Bock and my support from Illinois Computes, my work is a hundred times more visible. The videos are just an amazing way to connect with people. It connects scientists with other people through art, and I think that is very important. It’s so important for science to be more personal and more accessible to the public.

Francina Dominguez, Ph.D., CiMAS, UIUC

The new simulations will be used by researchers to understand a wide range of hydrometeorological phenomena, from severe weather and its frequency to atmospheric rivers that transport moisture to the effects of land cover changes such as deforestation. SAAG members also hope the simulations and the new video about the work will help policymakers as they grapple with how to manage water resources, prepare for more frequent and severe storms, and understand how climate change might impact such water-dependent industries as agriculture.

If SAAG can harness enough computing power, Dominguez said she would like to create simulations with even higher resolution, perhaps looking at convective storms at time steps of one minute.

“South America and the Amazon, in particular, have hydroclimates that sustain vibrant ecosystems and enormous biodiversity,” she said. “They are threatened by global warming and land use changes. With SAAG, we now have a community effort to improve the understanding of hydroclimate over the whole continent. Our goal is to support better-informed decision-making.”


Illinois Computes offers computing and data storage resources, technical expertise and support services to researchers from all domains across the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus for free. Through the campus-funded program, NCSA will learn what additional assets are needed to fulfill the computing demands of the university and adjust the cyberinfrastructure strategy while continuing to make access to systems, interdisciplinary and technical knowledge, and support infrastructure easy to obtain. Illinois Computes removes barriers for all Illinois researchers – especially those typically underserved – to access NCSA’s growing assemblage of research computing tools and world-class staff, furthering their innovative and novel work while ensuring NCSA is a leader in the global research community.

Check out the Illinois Computes website for more information or to get involved.

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