Frontera on the Front Lines During Record Hurricane Season
UT supercomputers enables emergency storm surge forecasts used by officials in Texas, Louisiana, and beyond.
Published on October 12, 2020 by Aaron Dubrow
The morning of October 9, 2020, the National Hurricane Center issued the following warning:
…RAINBANDS OF DELTA SPREADING INTO SOUTHWESTERN LOUISIANA AND SOUTHEASTERN TEXAS… …EXPECTED TO BRING HURRICANE CONDITIONS AND A LIFE-THREATENING STORM SURGE TO PORTIONS OF THE NORTHERN GULF COAST LATER TODAY…
Days earlier, when Hurricane Delta was a small, disorganized storm in Caribbean Sea, the team of researchers who provide storm surge model guidance for coastal states were already cranking out simulations using the Frontera supercomputer at The University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) — one of the fastest in the world.
Storm surge, the rise in sea-level caused by wind and waves, is the deadliest aspect of a hurricane. It can cause water levels to rise quickly — sometimes several feet in just minutes. Storm surge was the main cause of death during Hurricane Katrina and was a major factor in the devastating flooding of Hurricane Harvey.
Researchers have developed a system of computer programs called ADCIRC that use mathematical models of physical forces to simulate and predict the storm surge an incoming storm will produce based on the official hurricane forecast tracks. It has successfully forecast storm surge for the past 25 years.
“We’ve added more and more physics, better numerical algorithms, better software, better use of high performance computing resources, and it just continues to improve to the present day,” said Clint Dawson, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin, leader of the Oden Institute Computational Hydraulics Group, and one of ADCIRC’s lead developers.
The ADCIRC Surge Guidance System uses supercomputers to recalculate and update the ADCIRC projections every time a new forecast advisory is issued. And in 2020 — with 25 named storms and nine hurricanes — that has been often.
During tropical storms, TACC provides the ADCIRC team with emergency access to supercomputers to accomplish the massive amounts of computing needed to derive answers in a highly compressed timespan. TACC has been a contributor to storm surge forecasting efforts for every major storm since Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Frontera at the Front
With each new supercomputer, storm surge forecasts improve. Since Frontera launched in September 2019, the team who oversees ADCIRC and CERA (Coastal Emergency Risks Assessment) — an interactive web mapper where ADCIRC forecasts are shared — have adapted their forecasting system for the new machine.
“Having Frontera available is incredible,” said Jason Fleming, principal consultant for Seahorse Coastal Consulting and lead developer and operator of the ADCIRC Surge Guidance System. “Frontera not only has more processors, but also faster processors, which allows us to do so much more.
“Urgent computing forecasts get stale very quickly. Forecasts needs to be ready in time for a leaders’ morning briefing, and if they come late, they’re not actionable.”
Until this year, it would take the ADCIRC team an hour to run one scenario or forecast. But on Frontera, they can run three scenarios in the same amount of time. “This provides better guidance to decision-makers,” Fleming said.
Precision in Measurement and Modeling
When tropical storms begin to form in the Atlantic, it kicks off a multi-stage process to ultimately deliver forecasts to emergency managers and the public. The ADCIRC Surge Guidance System automatically ingests the storm track and wind forecasts from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) every six hours. Based on wind data, ADCIRC creates an approximation of the wind conditions across the entire region, which is important for determining the storm surge.
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