People - Written by on November 11, 2014

Navigating in a Virtual World

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James Hack, Director of ORNL’s National Center for Computational Sciences, was the first plenary speaker at the Smithsonian Institution’s symposium, held in Washington D.C. October 9, 2014. Image courtesy of Photographer, Smithsonian Institution

James Hack, Director of ORNL’s National Center for Computational Sciences, was the first plenary speaker at the Smithsonian Institution’s symposium, held in Washington D.C. October 9, 2014. Image courtesy of Photographer, Smithsonian Institution

ORNL’s Hack speaks at Smithsonian symposium

The unique combination of his current role as Director of ORNL’s National Center for Computational Sciences and his professional history as a climate modeler provides James Hack the opportunity to approach the issue of climate change and the task of climate modeling from two different perspectives.

He brought those perspectives to the podium when he delivered a recent presentation, “Navigating in a Virtual World,” at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Hack’s speech was featured at “Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health and Security,” a one-day symposium sponsored by Smithsonian’s Grand Challenges Consortia.

Hack was the first plenary speaker after brief introductory remarks from W. John Kress, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science.

On the subject of climate modeling, Hack said “Climate modeling is especially complex, so predicting the exact details of what will happen may never be possible. But the models do show that big changes are on the horizon and that they can tell us when and how to prepare.

“Climate science is settled enough to adopt carbon policies that make sense.”

Speaking about his experience at the October 9 Symposium, he said “It was really a very interesting day. Every one of the talks was engaging as were the panels,” Hack said. “Everyone I met was very passionate about what they are working on.”

He walked those in attendance through the history of high performance computing’s approach to climate modeling and made a case for its importance.

“If you look at how our simulation capabilities have changed over time, back in the early 1970s, we had very simplified models. In fact, when I first got into this, which was around 1984, you weren’t really able to do, routinely, a complete annual cycle. So in order to capture the statistical properties of your simulations, you ran what were called perpetual simulations — perpetual summer simulations, perpetual winter simulations.

“As time went on, as computing improved, instead of putting in very simple oceans, for example, we are now putting in dynamical oceans.

“As we move into the present day,” Hack continued, “Models with full chemistry that deal with atmospheric composition; models that have chemistry that deal with the real microphysics of clouds and running these models, at resolutions that actually capture scales of motion that are of real interest, especially for extreme events, is feasible.”

Identifying the modeling that predicted the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, a.k.a. “Superstorm Sandy,” which made landfall along the Jersey shore and flooded much of lower Manhattan in late October 2012, Hack noted models predicted the development and path of the storm even before it had been named.

“Is there value in the forecast, even if there were large uncertainties? I submit there is enormous value.

“It told us something was coming. It told people there was something on the horizon that they couldn’t see yet, but it was going to happen. And it allowed for responsible people who wanted to listen to that to actually prepare.”

Hack linked these examples of climate modeling to the greater question of climate change, the overarching theme for the symposium and framed the discussion with this question: “Is climate science settled enough? If we are going to judge this one the basis of whether or not we can predict every detail about what is going to happen over the next century, then maybe not.

“But my feeling is it is settled enough that you can adopt carbon policies that make sense.”

In addition to Hack, other plenary speakers were: Rachel Kyte, Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change, World Bank Group; Andrew Jones, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Climate Interactive; Thad Allen, Executive Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton.

Reflecting on the symposium, Hack noted the significance of the Smithsonian Institution’s statement on climate change that was released and discussed at the conclusion of the symposium. The adoption of a formal position on climate change, coupled with the symposium discussions, highlighted the growing recognition that we need to acknowledge and discuss this important issue.

“We seem to be afraid or unwilling to have this discussion,” he said. “The fact the Smithsonian has articulated a formal position on climate change is significant given its 160 year history dedicated to the documentation and understanding of cultures and global biodiversity.

“Understanding the complexities of our environment, and our roles and responsibilities in maintaining a sustainable environment for future generations, is a fundamental and important obligation shared by all of us who inhabit this planet.

“It was a great meeting and I was humbled to be a part of the event. It was a special experience, no question about it.”