23 February 2009

Earth sciences, human impacts

As this appears in print, a new US president will be in his first weeks at the head of an administration informed by respected earth scientists including John Holdren, Jane Lubchenco, and Steven Chu. The words ‘earth science’ usually evoke those disciplines concerned with the lithosphere (particularly geology, seismology, and vulcanology), but public concern is rising about the effects of human interaction with the other three spheres as well – and all sectors of the earth sciences are intensive consumers of computing resources.

Computational science began with water. Societies dependent upon fertile flood plains surrounded by arid regions needed advance knowledge of when their rivers would ebb and flood; and from that arose everything from algebra to astronomy. Today, from acute surges in the Thames to chronic vulnerability in Bangladesh, from one-off disasters such as the 2004 tsunami to the global rise in sea level, flooding remains a primary concern. A tsunami is not only a hydrospheric phenomenon, it is also in the class of seismic events. Sea levels are rising due to many causes, but one significant influence is melting of old ice as a result of changing climate – which also affects the crust beneath it, and the flow of Coriolis currents. Scientific computing in these areas embraces collection, assembly, and analysis of huge, complex data sets. There are other data associated with the human impacts of earth science events: mortality, economic dislocation, rescue, recovery, and medical demand. [more...]