Scientists Plot World's Largest Simulator to Model Disease, Climate Change, Economies

earth reflection image

Image via FlyingSinger via Flickr Creative Commons

Modeling systems are incredibly helpful for anticipating the effects of everything from weather to policy decisions on the environment and human populations. They can simulate what might happen when a storm hits a coastline or a new farming policy is enacted that could impact ground water. Typically modeling systems are specific to topics or geographic areas. Now, a group of researchers are trying to up the ante by creating a simulator that will replicate everything happening on the entire planet, including weather, diseases and economies. The BBC reports that the Living Earth Simulator (LES) is a project to improve the understanding of how human and environmental actions shape the world. By combining knowledge about everything from financial institutions to agriculture to weather to migration, the scientists feel we can finally form a more complete understanding about how everything interacts. Much of the emphasis is on finding a deeper understanding of how societies function, which would provide insight into things like the spread of diseases, impending financial problems, or even methods for combating climate change.

The concept is there, but the actual system is not. The scientists need to gather essentially all the information we have so far about the planet's functions and human interactions, as well as build supercomputers on a scale yet to be seen. The supercomputers would also have to be intelligent enough not just to compute data, but to understand it -- for instance, how do air pollution data, traffic data, and weather data interact to create a picture of global atmospheric conditions? It is a lot of information, to be compiled by computers yet to be built, so we're probably a long time away from having a full-planet simulator.

As noted by BBC, "If you look at the data-processing capacity of Google, it's clear that the LES won't be held back by processing capacity, says Pete Warden, founder of the OpenHeatMap project and a specialist on data analysis...If you accept that only a fraction of the 'several hundred exabytes of data being produced worldwide every year... would be useful for a world simulation, the bottleneck won't be the processing capacity,' says Mr Warden."

Rather, it's getting the information itself and knowing what to do with it -- and actually taking action once we have answers about cause and effect.

"It's not that we don't know enough about a lot of the problems the world faces, from climate change to extreme poverty, it's that we don't take any action on the information we do have," he argues.

We can have all the simulators in the world telling us that emissions from transportation and electricity generation are causing a shift in the atmosphere so profound that life as we know it is headed for a dramatic change, yet that doesn't seem to get most people out of their cars or turning off lights. A super-simulator like LES could be an incredible breakthrough for understanding human behavior, but it doesn't mean it's change said behavior.

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