SCIENTISTS at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are tapping into the power of 700000 computers linked around the world to study climate change and devise agricultural strategies to cope with changing weather patterns.
Drier summers have already hit apple orchards in Western Cape, which is experiencing higher temperatures. Now scientists hope to help SA’s farmers by calculating future temperature and humidity changes, and by predicting which areas will be hit by droughts or floods as rainfall patterns shift.
Technology company IBM has tapped into the processing power of idle computers owned by corporations or individuals to create the World Community Grid.
The resulting network is the fifth- largest supercomputer in the world, and could easily become the largest as more people join the grid.
IBM has now given UCT free access to that processing power. “Africa and SA are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” said IBM SA’s MD, Mark Harris. “We need to predict what will occur and what the impact is and develop crops that are more resistant to the type of changes that will occur.”
The computers will run “what if” scenarios based on rising levels of greenhouse gases, wind patterns and other
The government could manage water resources effectively, for example, only if it knew what seasonal and regional changes could be predicted from the rainfall patterns.
“Cape Town is on the limit of its water capacity and we have some suggestions that rainfall is going down.”
Once presented with firm evidence, the government may decide to build more dams, he said.
The university is expected to devise firm proposals in return for tapping into the computing power.
“This is an issue that needs policy recommendations. It is not an academic exercise,” said IBM’s head of corporate communications, Clint Roswell. “We’d like to see recommendations taken to the public sector and business community that result in policy changes involving different land use, agricultural subsidies and farming techniques in Africa.”
An additional problem is SA’s lack of affordable high-speed bandwidth, which prevents UCT from downloading the results of the global calculations. Instead, the data will be collated on IBM’s computers in the US and a summary of the information physically delivered. “Given bandwidth constraints, we will have to use a courier service,” Hewitson said.
With more than a billion computers around the world there was plenty of opportunity to add even more power to the grid, said IBM vice-president of innovation, Stan Litow.
“What stands between us having the fifth-largest supercomputer and having the largest and being able to tackle more environmental problems is simply getting our friends to join the World Community Grid. These are problems that can only be solved together,” he said.