Re: [asa] NASA - Climate Simulation Computer Becomes More Powerful

From: Dave Wallace <>
Date: Sun Aug 30 2009 - 16:10:57 EDT

Bill Powers wrote:
> It was the opinion of most of the oldtimers (I'm not quite old enough
> to be considered one) than numerical simulations were interpolation
> routines, not simulation routines. And in order to interpolate you
> something to interpolate between, that is, you need experimental
> results. I have long suggested that the same is true of the climate
> simulation models, which is why I have little confidence in their
> forecasting, esp. long terms forecasting, computations.
I agree and asked in 2007 if experimental results on even a small scale
are available to validate the models. I wrote:

> The March 2007 edition of Scientific American page 71 shows a picture
> of a "RIVER MODEL at the National Center for Earth Dynamics". The
> constructed model is being used to study how sediments move in rivers.
> I seem to recall that other such physical models of rivers have been
> constructed. At first thought it would seem improbable that any
> reasonably sized scale model of a river could result in useful data.
> I suspect they also use digital models to aid their understanding of
> sediment flows.
> Have any physical models been attempted for climate? If so what results?
> I understand that the Vehicle Assembly Building at the cape in Florida
> has some weather effects.
I do not recall any replies.

> It is especially as you add increasing complexity of nonlinear,
> interrelated physics packages, that you begin to realize the necessity
> of a smart code user and developer who learns to tweek the code,
> ignore certain complexities. Some purists believe that the greater
> detail and more physics we can add to the code, the better off you
> are. This is by no means clear. The more you do this, the more
> chaotic the code becomes and the more sensitive to the smallest of
> variations, including roundoff.

Not that I have strong reason to doubt current understanding but I would
find it more convincing if more of the physics were understood to
validate things like the magnitude and sign of feedback factors. Even
for what the models do simulate I have concerns about chaotic behavior
but have been told that the averaging that goes on tends to minimize
that concern. Have never received a strong argument in that area that
caused me to say "Ah ha I see now were I was wrong". Roundoff occurs
at each step in the floating point calculations so that even if the
models were perfect and the input data was known to infinite precision
one could still get chaotic behavior. When I was doing a Java
interpreter for Intel Itanium we had one or two old sample incomplete
implementations and I could see that some hardware (Dec Alpha?)
supported 128 bit floating point. Rich points out that the models are
run using 64bit floating point. I would hope that in a few cases the
same run was performed using 128 bit floating point approximations and
the result checked against the 64 bit run. I would be uncomfortable if
the results were more than a small amount different ie an agreement in
Celsius temperature of 3 or 4 digits would be good.

Rich said that an open source version of a model has been made
available. That seems to have pluses and minuses. More eyes looking
at code is always a good thing, however the approvers will have to be
very careful as something like the following could easily slip by:

Original code
A = B * (C * D);

A = B * C * D;

where A, B, C, D are all 64 bit floats.

Sure the improved case gives the same answer if we had infinite
precision but we don't and floating point arithmetic is not
associative. I have seen cases where code has been given to less
competitent programmers or numerical analysts and the kind of change I
illustrate has occurred. Compiler writers refer to honoring such
parenthesized expressions as producing safe code because correct results
are data dependent. When the RT PC first shipped the compilers did not
produce safe code, as the developers said that numerical values which
could cause problems would never occur. Guess what they occurred and
these compilers were withdrawn and replaced by better ones (from my
group in Toronto). Naturally un safe code is often faster.

Dave W

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Received on Sun Aug 30 16:49:57 2009

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