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China pollution

How bad will the air pollution get? Don't ask China’s supercomputers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2017, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

China’s supercomputers have been “useless” in determining smog forecasts, several researchers say.

Most calculations were done using an IBM high-performance computer operated by China Meteorological Administration, the scientists said. The three-year-old machine, IBM Flex System p460, played a key role in arriving at forecasts for smog levels for Beijing and other parts of the northern mainland last month, according to the researchers.

Smog levels in Beijing off the charts

The Tianhe-1, a much more powerful computer than the IBM and located in Tianjin near the capital, made a negligible contribution to the analysis, they said. It currently provides smog forecasts for Baoding, a medium-sized city in Hebei province, according to information on the website of the National Supercomputer Centre in Tianjin. When it was launched, the Tianhe-1 was expected to provide forecasts for the entire mainland, according to state media reports. The centre declined to comment.

The mainland has risen to the top of the supercomputer leagues in recent years, producing the two current speed kings – Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-2 – according to top500.org, which tracks developments in the industry. But while the nation may enjoy bragging rights in terms of brute strength, critics have said software incompatibility could prove the Achilles heel of Chinese supercomputers.

To make predictions for smog levels, the meteorological administration uses a numerical model, known as CAUCE/Haze-fog. Running the program on an IBM machine was “much more natural” than on Tianhe, according to a researcher, who asked not to be named.

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Another issue was the distance between Beijing and Tianjin, which made the transfer of massive amounts of data slow and costly. The computer splits its calculation resources among more than 1,400 clients, some of which are production houses that create cartoons or special effects for movies. Ensuring weather and air pollution simulations were the priority was difficult.

On the mainland, smog alerts also carry implications for the leadership, and given what was at stake, the meteorological authorities valued the reliability of the IBM machine, researchers said.

Weather authorities in Shanghai also used an IBM machine instead of a home-made supercomputer for weather and pollution forecasts, according to mainland media reports