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Supercomputers have become an extension of the human mind, “thinking” for us in a short amount of time when our own brains would take countless hours to do the same calculations. In one of the most recent applications of HPC (high-performance computing), scientists have received an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation to model in 3D the future spread of the BP oil spill.

The spill, which occurred on April 20th, has steadily been spreading to the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Although efforts are underway to stem the expansion of the spilled oil (for instance, today BP started injecting heavy mud around contaminated areas), no one is certain that they will work.

So to prepare for any eventuality, researchers have turned to supercomputers to understand how the the dynamics of the oil. According to the article in Computerworld, 1 million compute hours have been allocated on the supercomputer called “Ranger” at the Texas Advanced Computing Center  (one compute hour is one CPU core running for one hour, whereas the Ranger has 63,000 cores).

The model employed to simulate the spill is called Adcirc (Advanced Circulation Model for Oceanic, Coastal and Estuarine Waters). Scientists are currently updating this 2D model to make it 3D. This will allow them to calculate how oil travels underwater when it encounters the various vegetation and other obstructions near the coastal areas.

Another contingency that the researchers are preparing for is the possibility that a summer hurricane will sweep up oil from the Gulf spill and carry it to land, potentially causing contamination in areas where people live. The new 3D model will hope to account for that as well.

As the case of the BP oil spill demonstrates, nations are relying more and more on supercomputers in emergency situations to help scientists and policy makers understand and predict the outcomes of national disasters.