IBM, U.Va. Launch Computing for Sustainable Water Project

Released: 19-Apr-2012 1:40 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Virginia
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Newswise — April 19, 2012 — The University of Virginia and IBM's World Community Grid today launched the Computing for Sustainable Water Project, an effort to simulate and forecast the environmental and economic effects of agricultural, commercial and industrial decisions over the next 20 years in and around the Chesapeake Bay, America's largest estuary.

By harnessing the massive power of 2 million computers provided by close to 600,000 World Community Grid volunteers in 80 countries, the effort seeks to compress and collapse 90 years worth of computational research into just one year.

"After we complete a year of calculations, we expect to arrive at findings that could inform policy and stimulate individual behavior change in the Chesapeake Bay region and along its watershed," said Gerard Learmonth, a University of Virginia systems and information engineering professor who, with graduate student Ryan Bobko, designed and built the Computing for Sustainable Water Project. "What we learn from this project also could easily be extended to other regions of the world facing similar stresses on water quality."

Learmonth and his colleagues at IBM believe the sustainable water project could inform future public policy decisions for 400 or so major waterways and associated ecosystems worldwide, half of which are under stress.

The Computing for Sustainable Water Project is a mathematical model that simulates the actions of the 16.7 million people living in the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. The model is designed to forecast the monthly and cumulative effects of agriculture-, transportation-, energy- and industry-related decisions made over the course of the next 20 years.

"We are looking at whether or not various best management practices currently in use by governments will be effective in the long run for reducing the load of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that is reaching the Chesapeake Bay from municipalities and agricultural areas and causing a decline in the health of the bay," Learmonth said. "We hope that what we learn can not only help restore the health of the bay, but also sustain it for future generations."

"We are very pleased to partner with IBM to make visible to the world this important computer simulation of our nation's most diverse watershed," said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va.'s vice president for research, whose office sponsors the project. "It is now obvious to government and corporate leaders that water is the next oil, a very precious resource to human life on earth. This world-leading simulation offers a realistic model of how the complex human behaviors interact with natural systems to produce Chesapeake Bay health. It will be extremely valuable to policymakers worldwide as we devise well-informed systems for managing our life-giving water systems."

While scientists already understand the effects of nutrients on bodies of water, they cannot as easily anticipate how humans might influence changes to natural systems. To better forecast outcomes and unintended consequences of human activities, researchers need to simulate innumerable possible cause-and-effect and "what-if" scenarios. To make timely progress, the complexity and amount of data involved requires fast and powerful computing – an expensive proposition.

World Community Grid, a kind of public supercomputer created and funded by IBM, provides the necessary computational power free of charge.

"The University of Virginia's Computing for Sustainable Water Project, proudly hosted on IBM's World Community Grid, is a terrific example of what happens when academia and the private sector team up to address critically important issues facing the environment and society," said Stanley S. Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM's International Foundation. "With 2 million devices now powering World Community Grid, we're confident that the University of Virginia's project to explore the dynamics and decisions affecting water quality will have more than enough resources at its disposal to shed to new light on how we all can be better stewards of the environment."

The Computing for Sustainable Water Project builds on the UVA Bay Game, an educational simulation model designed by Learmonth and a team of U.Va. scientists and policy academicians to raise awareness of the effects of natural and man-made changes on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Players simulate the decisions of farmers, land developers, watermen and regulators. The results provide insight to human behavior and watershed management.

While the UVA Bay Game is a participatory simulation – literally a "game" – where live players interact over a limited period of time with a very high-level, simple model of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Computing for Sustainable Water project uses simulated "agents" representing people living in the watershed interacting within a highly detailed, complex model. It will continuously calculate scenarios for a year to forecast possible 20-year outcomes.

Learmonth and IBM officials are encouraging individuals, businesses, schools, local governments and social service agencies to participate in the Computing for Sustainable Water Project by downloading a free app from World Community Grid to personal computers and similar non-mobile devices. The app enables volunteers' computers to perform calculations for the Computing for Sustainable Water Project when systems are not in use. The process runs automatically, requires no time from volunteers, resists viruses, is environmentally friendly with little additional energy usage, and does not affect computer speeds.

Founded by IBM in 2004, World Community Grid provides computational power to scientists who might not otherwise afford the high-speed computing required for timely research. The grid, which can host multiple multi-year projects at one time, has hosted 19 research projects; nine of which are in second-phase stages.

Other World Community Grid projects include an effort at Tsinghua University in China to develop ways to filter, scrub or treat polluted freshwater and seawater with less expense, complexity and energy; and projects seeking a faster way to cure disease – such as schistosomiasis, find renewable energy materials, and develop healthier food staples.

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