UW Student to Help Researchers Map Hydrology of Colorado River Basin

October 15, 2012
Man working on computer
University of Wyoming student Nels Frazier displays a computer model of the Green River, located in southwestern Wyoming. The model was created by fellow student Spencer Buda, of Grand Junction, Colo. Frazier is among a number of UW students assisting researchers with a supercomputing project to model the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin. (UW Photo)

This past summer, Nels Frazier taught computational science concepts to high school and middle school students around the state. This fall, the University of Wyoming fifth-year undergraduate from LaGrange will receive some supercomputing education of his own.

Frazier, who double majors in computer science and mathematics, is part of a team of UW researchers that will use the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) to map the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin.

“We are doing something that hasn’t been attempted before -- taking the Upper Colorado River Basin and putting it into a computer model,” Frazier says. “It wouldn’t be possible without the supercomputer. We want to take this massive amount of data and make it into something usable.”

A comprehensive model of the upper Colorado River Basin -- at a resolution 100 times higher than currently available -- will be created. The physics-based hydrologic model will be applicable over large areas to help assess long-term impacts of water policy and resource management decisions, natural and man-made land-use changes, and climate variability -- with an emphasis on the Rocky Mountain west region.

Fred Ogden, the Cline Distinguished Chair in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, and Haub School of Environmental and Natural Resources, and Craig Douglas, SER professor of mathematics and director for the Institute for Scientific Computation, will head the project, titled "CI-Water Petascale Computational Model for the Upper Colorado River Basin."

The CI-WATER project is a joint collaboration among UW, the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University. Cooperators include the United States Army Corps of Engineers and NCAR.

The CI-WATER project is funded with an EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Program (RII) Track-2 cooperative agreement. Distributed through the National Science Foundation, these cooperative agreements provide research funding to states, including Wyoming, that typically receive lesser amounts of NSF research and development funding.

Ogden was looking for a couple of undergraduate students familiar with a UNIX computing environment and with experience using C or C++ programs, says Frazier, whose background includes programming and systems administration.

Frazier’s role, which began this past summer, includes setting up a campus computer lab and systems administration, as well as plan how to build the software needed to run the computer model on the supercomputer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has provided model-building software for the project.

“We’re taking that source code from that software and we have to figure out if it’s capable of working with the models we want,” Frazier says. “We’re using what they already have so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ll add to their software to get our job done.”

Before the project will be modeled on the supercomputer, the work will be scaled and tested using Mount Moran, the on-campus Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC) located in the IT Data Center. The large amount of data needs to be broken down into manageable sections of the basin that can be computed before the segments are brought back together to develop a comprehensive view of the data for the supercomputer, Frazier says.

“One of the big problems we have to solve is how to get high resolution images (of watersheds) at higher altitudes and lower resolution images at lower altitudes,” he says. “A lot of modeling doesn’t take that into account. We want to take these resolutions and put them into something we can understand.”

During the summer, Frazier says he put in up to 30 hours a week on the project. During the school year, he is limited to 18 hours a week because of academic demands, he says.

“My skills fit with this project. As I learned more about the project, I got more excited,” he says. “I’ve taken things I’ve learned and I am using them. This may help my graduate school prospects.”

The NWSC was unveiled Monday (Oct. 15) during a ceremonial opening dedication in the North Range Business Park in Cheyenne.

The NWSC will contain 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 will house a premier data storage (11 petabytes) and archival facility that holds historical climate records and other information.

Including Frazier's project, the National Science Foundation has chosen seven UW research projects -- ranging from planet formation from star debris to fluid dynamics of wind turbines -- that will use the NWSC this fall.

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