Discovery Files

The TeraGrid Community Steps Up to Help Japan in Crisis

Advanced computation enabled by supercomputers enhances understanding of earthquake and tsunamis and their impacts

Summary: Earthquake and tsunami. March 11, 2011. Japan.

  • More than 26,000 people are dead or missing and an estimated 400,000 are homeless.
  • An estimated 25 trillion yen, or $330 billion dollars, in damages make it the most costly natural disaster on record. The estimates are more than three times those of the second most costly natural disaster, also an earthquake in Japan.
  • The ruptured Fukushima Daiichi power plant threatens people in northeastern Japan and may have an impact on the ocean and atmosphere far beyond Japanese shores.
  • A fractured power grid and rolling blackouts adversely affect essential services that rely on digital resources. 
  • Nearly a quarter of Japan's total geography has been altered.

Experts think it could take years before Japan's basic resources are back online, and as spending is prioritized for more urgent humanitarian needs, restoring some resources may be prolonged even more. Digital resources fall into that category.

Essential services that are computer power-dependent, such as security, transportation, education and services like air conditioning and elevators in skyscrapers, probably will be given a lower primacy than other services such as those involving health care.

Moreover, many of Japan's industrial and research communities have been severely impacted. A myriad of the products used in daily lives come from factories that were destroyed.

So researchers, and particularly members of the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid community, have stepped up to offer help in the form of short-term and some long-term solutions.

What contibutions can be made by the science community?

TeraGrid is the world's most comprehensive cyberinfrastructure in support of open scientific research. The researchers who support and use this resource form a peerless, multidisciplinary fraternity of innovators and problem solvers.

The following are a few ways the TeraGrid community has begun to help the people of Japan--gestures that have minimal cost to the U.S. research community, while proving to be extremely beneficial to researchers in Japan in the wake of this global tragedy:

1. The Keeneland Project at Georgia Tech has collaborated closely with Tokyo Tech over the past two years on developing innovative computer architectures and software that use graphic processors. Georgia Tech's Keeneland Initial Delivery system's combination of architecture and software is nearly identical to Tokyo Tech's TSUBAME2.0. Currently in preproduction mode, the Keeneland team is working with a select group of Keeneland early adopters to develop programming tools and libraries for applications on graphic processing units. As a result of the disaster, the Keeneland team is exploring ways to provide cycles and storage from Keeneland to colleagues at Tokyo Tech; Japanese researchers will be able to continue their important work during the summer, when the demand for power will exceed the available supply, and, consequently, lead to the temporary shutdown of TSUBAME2.0.

2. Indiana University (IU) provided assistance to the international emergency response community via the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-funded E-DECIDER and QuakeSim projects in the weeks following the disaster. IU staff assisted with the creation of Level 0 satellite data products for the International Charter  which provides a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disasters. IU also made a global analysis image from the very coarse grained (250 m resolution) MODIS (NASA MODIS Rapid Response System) satellite data that revealed the tsunami inundation area by using change-detection algorithms that compared before and after images. Early analysis showed damage more than three kilometers inland in places, which was later confirmed with higher resolution images. Earthquakes are an inevitable threat to many areas of the U.S., not just the West Coast. The Great Central U. S. Shakeout is attempting to highlight this danger and help emergency responders, public health officials, government agencies, and the general public prepare. Understanding the recent major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Japan is a worthy goal that will directly benefit United States citizens.

3. A Louisiana State University professor is collaborating with Japanese colleagues from the University of Massachusetts, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and others on a large scale tsunami simulation. With help from volunteers, they quickly prepared an extremely accurate global ocean model, using six different observations that were provided by Japanese collaborators.

LSU and the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative helped in the hours following Hurricane Katrina, by providing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with emergency access to its high-speed, high-bandwidth networking connections so they could share and transfer critical data quickly from New Orleans. This gesture helped first-responders provide rapid aid.

4. San Diego Supercomputer Center is providing cycles and storage on its Triton and Data Oasis resources to colleagues from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Tokyo Institute of Technology. These resources have enabled researchers to continue their Global Earth Observation (GEO) Grid activities, including generation of ground motion maps and analyzing satellite data related to the disaster (some results at were generated with Triton).

5.  The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) which regularly provides a portion of its supercomputer cycles for emergency applications, just recently, provided Lonestar4 cycles to Japanese researchers from the University of Tokyo, and additional Japanese schools, to model the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the route taken by radioactive content from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that was dispersed in the ocean and atmosphere.

TACC helped in the months following the Deep Horizons oil rig explosion by donating 6.5 million service units on Ranger to generate a simulation of the anticipated path of the oil spill. This drastically benefited mitigation efforts.

Recognizing TACC's impact, Dell contributed technology to further expand the organizations efforts to support emergency response efforts. The TACC and Dell teams have since worked to bring together U.S. and Japanese universities in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

TeraGrid Forum Chair John Towns is pleased with the immediate response from TeraGrid partners so far, and hopes to see more. "We will work together to develop a more organized and integrated plan to assist Japanese researchers while minimizing the impact to the resources needed by the U.S. research community," he said. "All requests for TeraGrid resources and services are received via the online system called POPS. Urgent requests are always considered separate and apart from our regular quarterly process," he added.

The NSF encourages the community to apply for funds that will enable more support through the NSF RAPID grant program. RAPID grants are typically $50,000 to $200,000 for the most relevant projects. The program funds urgent proposals that address the availability of or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events. Applications are accepted via NSF Fastlane through April 29, 2011.

"This isn't the first time our TeraGrid family took the initiative to help in a crisis," said NSF's Barry Schneider, TeraGrid Program Director. "Hopefully their efforts will help Japanese researchers return to some sense of normality, allow the world to gain a better understanding of earthquakes and tsunamis in general, and prevent future loss. It's a great example of how the U.S. investment in science contributes to global scientific, social, and economic progress," he added.

For more information about TeraGrid, visit the TeraGrid website.