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UW Professor Uses Supercomputer to Model Snowpack’s Effect on Alpine Region Agriculture

February 15, 2013

Many regions around the world, including Wyoming and much of the western United States, rely on cold-season precipitation and snowmelt for their water supplies. Using the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC), Noriaki Ohara plans to use data from the Andes Mountains in Bolivia to focus on how snowpack affects agriculture in alpine regions -- information that can easily translate to the Rocky Mountain region.

“Since the South- and North-American monsoon systems share many important features, we expect that the outcomes from this research will also be relevant to the climate prediction problem over the mountainous United States,” which includes Wyoming, says Ohara, a University of Wyoming assistant professor of civil and architectural engineering.

Ohara says he has always been interested in cold region hydrology, especially in snow and glacier processes. He says the Andes is a critical region and will continue to be vulnerable to climate change, which includes drought. He referenced the 18,000-year-old Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia that became barren in 2009.

Ohara will collaborate with Thomas Reichler, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, on the project, titled “Dynamic Regional Downscaling of Hydro-climate Over Complex Terrain.” The project is supported by the Bolivian Ministry for the Environment and Water. As part of the International Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR), the project also is funded by the World Bank.

The primary objective of the research is to develop a clear understanding of the expected changes in hydro-climate over tropical South America during the next 50 years. Ohara’s research will target simulating, understanding and predicting changes in climate and water resources over mountainous regions. Changes in the hydro-climate of mountains may alter water availability in many world regions, which could result in dire economic impacts, he says.This snow and meteorological observation tower was stationed in Wyoming’s Snowy Range by Scott Miller, a UW professor of ecosystem science and management. Noriaki Ohara added all sensors mounted on the tower. The tower observes snow depth, air and ground temperatures, relative humidity, wind, radiation and precipitation.

Ohara hopes the research will strengthen the ability of water resource managers in that region, which is dependent on agriculture and mining, to better plan for various climate-change scenarios and be able to adapt such plans to future changes. Plans could include the creation of better flood protection, the regulation of river flow through dams, or possibly even relocating populations, he says.

Making the model

A controlled simulation, using climate data for the Andes from 1991-2010, will be used to represent today’s climate. This simulation will be used to test the basic performance and climatology of the system. It also will serve as a reference against which climate change simulations can be compared, Ohara says.

In addition, Ohara will conduct five 20-year climate change simulations. These will be driven by predictions from five different global climate models (which he will average) conducted in support of the Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Simulations will be created to show resolution for 100-kilometer areas. Those will be downscaled to 1-kilometer simulations, which will provide more topographic details, Ohara says. The downscaled global climate model output variables -- such as air and ground temperature, snow and rainfall, humidity, wind field and radiation -- by the supercomputer will provide the essential atmospheric information for his snow and glacier model, Ohara says.

These simulations will be used to discover, among other things, expected changes in hydro-climate over the Andes region by the year 2050; how snow and ice storage amounts change in the mountains; and reasons for those changes.

“The simulated snowpack conditions will be crucial for the disaster management strategies and the infrastructure design” for the Andes region, Ohara says. “Moreover, the findings and better understandings of the large-scale snow processes will be directly applicable to Wyoming.”

NWSC is the result of a partnership among the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the operating entity for NCAR; the University of Wyoming; the state of Wyoming; Cheyenne LEADS; the Wyoming Business Council; and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power. The NWSC is operated by NCAR under sponsorship of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NWSC contains one of the world's most powerful supercomputers (1.5 petaflops, which is equal to 1.5 quadrillion mathematical operations per second) dedicated to improving scientific understanding of climate change, severe weather, air quality and other vital atmospheric science and geo-science topics. The center also houses a premier data storage (11 petabytes) and archival facility that holds historical climate records and other information.

Noriaki Ohara, a UW professor of civil and architectural engineering, will use the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center to model how snowpack affects agriculture in alpine regions -- information that can easily translate to the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Wyoming. (UW Photo)

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