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09/14/2004 07:00:00

NSF Awards $6.75 Million to Caltech for Geodynamics Computational Facility

PASADENA, Calif.--The National Science Foundation has awarded $6.75 million to the California Institute of Technology to house the central activities of a major new community-based, software engineering effort to revolutionize scientific computing in geophysics. The NSF initiative, which will involve at least 24 other American universities and research institutions and four foreign affiliates, is intended to allow scientists studying such fields as seismology, plate tectonics, volcanism, and geomagnetism to take full advantage of recent advances and extraordinary opportunities available in scientific computation.

According to founding director Michael Gurnis, a professor of geophysics at Caltech, the center will focus on developing advanced software that will enable individual Earth scientists to produce more realistic simulations for studying natural phenomena, and also for the analysis and integration of data. The Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics (CIG) will initially be located on the main campus in central Pasadena, and later at the recently acquired St. Luke property in northeast Pasadena.

"CIG will enable scientific progress in several areas of geophysics," Gurnis says. "The frontier has moved into multiscale and multiphysics problems in which investigators now want to use simulation software for data interpretation, data assimilation, and hypothesis testing."

Robin Reichlin, program director in NSF's division of Earth sciences, says, "The CIG will revolutionize computational geodynamics by developing anddocumenting state-of-the-art, modular codes that will benefit a cross-section of Earth scientists. CIG products will be flexible enough to be run on supercomputing platforms or desktop computers used in classrooms, helping to educate the next generation of computational Earth scientists."

According to Gurnis, "Our science is now moving into a new era as the United States deploys an unprecedented array of instrumentation to image the planet's interior and sense the slight tectonic motions of the surface with EarthScope. CIG will allow researchers to model and interpret the tidal wave of data from EarthScope and other initiatives. Scientific computing has become an essential component in earth science research and CIG will allow the national community to advance software in lock step with the huge growth in geophysical data."

According to Louise Kellogg, professor of geophysics at the University of California, Davis, "CIG will be a catalyst for collaboration among earth scientists and computer scientists. By developing new methods and taking advantage of advances in software engineering and computer hardware, these communities will be able to work towards solving some of the major scientific questions in Earth sciences."

CIG will consist of a core team of software architects and engineers dedicated to creating new products. In addition, the center will support a visitor's program open to the international Earth science community.

Gurnis believes "that the special attribute of CIG will be the infrastructure allowing an immensely talented and creative community of scientists--the US community of computational geophysicists--to collaborate in the development of a new generation of computational software that will allow us to solve previously intractable problems."

Marc Spiegelman, an expert in magma migration at Columbia University, adds, "The CIG promises a new era in both individual and collaborative Earth science that makes advances in computational science and modern hardware accessible to a much larger community of scientists. CIG also marks a new level of collaboration between Earth scientists and computational scientists. I am very impressed with the computational scientists already involved in this project and it gives me confidence that exciting and important new science and technology will result from the CIG."

The focus of the software development will concentrate on several areas of Earth science:

< Better understanding of mantle dynamics. Earth's mantle and its convection are known to be responsible for plate tectonics and continental drift, but the processes are poorly understood.

< Better understanding of magma dynamics and geochemical transport. The dynamics and evolution of Earth's interior can be inferred from the chemistry of the materials erupted from the mantle, but the picture is so complicated that there are still many open questions, including how melted and solid materials are distributed and interact to affect the geochemical evolution of the planet.

< Crustal and lithospheric dynamics on million-year timescales. The crust we live on undergoes deformations over long timescales, and better modeling could lead to increased understanding of how erosion from climate change and crustal changes are related.

< Crustal dynamics on earthquake timescales. This area is of tremendous societal importance because advances in understanding how stress relates to the triggering of earthquakes and aftershocks could lead to better knowledge of earthquake hazard.

< Seismic wave propagation. The data already coming from existing instruments will soon be augmented by data from the EarthScope project, which will call for better computational tools for analysis and modeling.

< The geodynamo. Progress in understanding Earth's magnetic field will require extensive numerical investigations.

The long-term goal of the new center will be to develop a flexible infrastructure for modeling. According to Gurnis, the collaborators have set a priority of designing within the first 18 months of operation a "coherent functionality" of geodynamics.

"We officially started on September 1, and the activity will grow over the next several years," Gurnis says.

Written by Robert Tindol