Undergraduate researchers in Travis O’Brien’s lab are using Indiana University’s high-powered computing resources to learn climate modeling techniques that reveal new insights into everyday weather patterns.
IU hosts multiple climate modeling applications used in O’Brien’s research and teaching. One is called TECA, which stands for the Toolkit for Extreme Climate Analysis, and provides cutting-edge data analysis of complex weather events using high performance computing (HPC) systems like Big Red 200 and Carbonate, facilitated by IU’s Research Technologies and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding.
The software is designed to perform custom applications for different climate variables like wind patterns or humidity. The emphasis on visual modeling and use of virtual HPC systems over batch computing makes it a great choice for new researchers, O’Brien said.
“The cool thing is that it hides the details of how the system makes use of the HPC, like source codes,” he said. “People like me who are introducing concepts to students or manipulating climatic variables, they don’t have to worry too much about the details of how I’m getting several hundred computers to coordinate simultaneously working on a model— that’s taken care of by TECA.”
“It’s been really valuable to hop across systems and not have to wait in a queue in order to get student’s simulations up and running. The fact that it’s available to students without barriers is amazing. Undergraduates can help me do research in a way that I’ve never been able to do before.”
Travis O'Brien, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Indiana University
His research helps better define the nature of today’s extreme weather events. For example, using TECA modeling, he was able to show that the 2021 flood of Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington was an atmospheric river. “People usually think about atmospheric rivers as being a West Coast phenomenon, but living in the Midwest, I see them all the time,” said O’Brien. “I want to establish the fact that yes, they do happen here, so we customize TECA to look at the meteorology of atmospheric rivers to show the similarities. There is a large amount of knowledge related to this weather pattern on the West Coast, and now forecasters in the Midwest can tap into this knowledge.”
An infographic describing atmospheric rivers, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). O'Brien mentors undergraduate researchers in the study of such weather events.
O’Brien trains the next generation of climate modeling researchers using a tool called RegCM, which maps regional trends in weather patterns. Undergraduate researcher Lia Castro-Sauer said she learned about monsoons with first-hand access to RegCM. “It was all new information to me. Weather was never something I spent much time thinking about, so it was a very interesting experience. I had heard about monsoons before in India primarily, but I seriously had no idea that the United States experienced them as well,” she said.
Castro-Sauer is a 2020 scholar in the Wells Scholars Program, named in honor of Herman B Wells, Indiana University’s beloved 11th president. She is also a Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies 2022 Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS) recipient in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
O’Brien says the virtual capabilities of IU’s HPC network have lifted a major barrier for professors when introducing undergraduates to these resources: time. “A lot of what I do has been made easier with IU’s HPC resources,” said O’Brien, who says the diversity of resources—from Quartz to Big Red 200—means there’s usually open capacity for him to run models during class time.
“One of the things I really appreciate about IU’s infrastructure is that their file systems are network mounted across multiple HPC systems, which means that I can jump across systems as needed,” said O’Brien. “It’s been really valuable to hop across systems and not have to wait in a queue in order to get students’ simulations up and running. The fact that it’s available to students without barriers is amazing. Undergrads can help me do research in a way that I’ve never been able to do before.”
Brianna Pinnick, an earth sciences major, says the lab portions were a memorable part of the course. “Our study ran climate models over the southwest region of the United States and northern Mexico, the areas affected by the North American monsoon each year. It was my first experience with supercomputing, and my favorite part was learning the command line. I would like to continue working with HPC if the opportunity arises,” she said. Brianna was a Rising Star of Indiana Class of 2021 for Vincennes Lincoln High School.
So far, seven undergraduates have accessed RegCM through O’Brien’s course, with more on the way. “This was made possible by the UITS Research Technologies support team, which has been very responsive in helping add students to filesystem groups so that they can access datasets that we use to run RegCM, and fielding any questions,” said O’Brien. “It has absolutely prevented me from having to use my own funds to buy computing systems.”
To sign-up your undergraduate students to use high performance computing at IU, please visit this Knowledge Base article about sponsorship.