The Earth moves for Canadian university researchers

Canada’s academic community is harnessing the power of high-performance computing technology to gain a better understanding of the Earth, both inside and out.

Two projects, one at the University of Western Ontario in London and

the other at Dalhousie University in Halifax, will examine everything from how the Earth moves based on gravitational field and continental drifts to how mountains and sedimentary basins form. Both schools are using IBM hardware to handle the massive computational work to create the necessary simulations.

At Dalhousie, for example, researchers are working on a “”geology machine”” consisting of a special finite element code that will allow them to study physical processes in three dimensions. The software Dalhousie is developing will simulate interactions of the Earth’s crust based on numerical technique frequently used in fluid dynamics to test against car crashes. This will allow them to try and figure out, for example, how salt forms in rock formations, when it forms, what conditions were necessary and why salt ends up in the bottom of the basin. The answers to these questions, lead researcher Chris Beaumont said, could be highly useful to oil and gas companies by improving their success ratio when drilling off the continental margin. A deep water hole drilled in the Nova Scotia slope costs between $30 and $80 million, he said, which means even if only 10 per cent improvement in accuracy could result in substantial savings.

“”The trouble is that in Earth sciences, because everything happens in the million-year time scale or longer, there is no hope of actually observing this happening in the sense of going somewhere and watching it,”” he said.

Though there have been attempts to build scale-type models in a laboratory setting, Beaumont said finding the necessary materials can be extremely difficult. “”You don’t only want them to scale in a mechanical way; you might want their thermal properties, among other things,”” he said.

At Western, meanwhile, the Department of Earth Sciences is using a Linux cluster of IBM eServers to integrate everything we know about the Earth’s structure as seen from the surface in a variety of data sets. This includes high-resolution images of the gravitational field of the Earth over all continents and the underlying motions of the tectonic plates on which the continents sit.

These movements can have big consequences, according to Western professor Alessandro Forte. The most recent earthquake in Turkey, for example, was tied to a shift in the tectonic plates.

“”We want a model of the time and spatial evolution of the distribution of heat inside the planet, how the solid rock inside shifts over time, and how those shifts and transfer of heat has an impact on the surface,”” he said. “”We’re interested, for example, modelling the stresses in the central part of North America — Hudson’s Bay, Quebec, Ontario — on a very large scale so we can try to understand how those stresses might be responsible for future activity along major faults.””

Paul Ruttan, business unit executive for pSeries at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., said life sciences and government agencies are among the other markets where high-performance systems are making their mark.

“”The consistent requirement is they’re looking for the best performance they can get for their budget,”” he said.

Though both projects will take several years to complete, the results may make their way to the world in different forms. Forte said Western would likely publish findings in well-known journals like Nature, while Beaumont said he hopes to commercialize the software Dalhousie is creating.

“”It’s interesting research in its own right, but it might be used in an innovative way by industry as well,”” he said.

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