PLANETARY SYSTEMS MODELLING | Geneva is the base proposed for a future International Centre for Earth Simulation (ICES) that is intended to attract around €1 billion in private sector funding to model the planet’s climate and environmental systems.

Supported by the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) and the World Meteorological Organization’s World Climate Research Programme, the not-for-profit ICES Foundation is being led by Australian ICT entrepreneur Bob Bishop, a former CEO of Silicon Graphics (SGI).

Bob Bishop

During its heyday in the 1980s, SGI was the incubator for inventors of the Keyhole program that eventually launched commercially as Google Earth in 2005. Today, Bishop suggests, Google Earth is a ‘popular’ starting point for a huge new movement to use networked computers to record, simulate and predict behaviours and circumstances around the planet.

‘Google Earth is a beautiful flythrough of a static database but we want to put cause and effect dynamics on top of that database – so we could see the weather, the climate, the environment, biodiversity and even the interactions of the Earth with the Sun through space weather,’ says Bishop (in an interview recorded at IBM’s Research Lab in Zurich).

Launched in 2010 with another video interview recorded at CERN, the European research organisation using particle and nuclear physics to understand how the Universe works, the ICES project now is being promoted as ‘a CERN for understanding how the Earth works’.

Says Bishop: ‘This is a long term, very ambitious mission to bring together all the sciences, which are currently in separate silos and don’t talk to each other enough. Until we integrate these sciences horizontally, we really don’t know the best way to simulate the future of the planet.’

To begin the project, Bishop plans to spend three years working with a core team of two scientists and three systems engineers to build digital tools for transdisciplinary model development and create (as a proof of concept) a real time, high-resolution Digital Earth model. Also he is developing a global network of partner organisations, a governance and legal framework and funding.

The proposed Earth model would include:

—convention, cloud and aerosol (air pollution) physics
—dynamic vegetation and deep ocean physics
—improved grid resolution and fidelity
—improved error management and model uncertainties
—improved parametricisation methods and insights
—massive data streams assimilated from new space and in-situ sensor networks
—integrated NWP and climate modelling methods
—combinations of seasonal, inter-seasonal, annual, inter-annual and decadal data, skills and capabilities
—links between space weather, solar sciences, climate and environmental modelling

While today’s top 10 computer systems are all over a petaflop in power, Bishop believes the Earth simulation project will need at least 1000 times more power during the next 10 years. ‘We believe it will take an exoflop to solve the problem of integrating all the sciences and increasing our accuracies of prediction,’ he says.

Like other leaders of the Digital Earth movement, Bishop is excited by the potentials of the ‘very powerful’ citizen science movement to contribute environmental information to the global model.

‘The idea of having seven billion smartphones available for computation is pretty good. It requires a lot of software to bring it all together but I’m thinking on the data which can be provided by those phones. For instance over the next 10 years it’s possible for these phones to have a single chip automatic weather station – and that, combined with GPS data, would be very handy for a global simulator trying to predict the weather in future. So I look upon citizen science as a very valuable data entry point.

‘But these smartphones also can translate output from the global model. Even in developing countries, cellphones are penetrating very quickly. Governments in those countries could benefit from having output from the global simulator, which would tell them somewhat what’s going to happen to their local weather – and that could be helpful for running their own economies.’