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Researchers Produce 3D Models of BP Oil Spill in Gulf using Ranger Supercomputer

Published on May 28, 2010 by Faith Singer-Villalobos

Researchers are using the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to produce 3D simulations of the impact of BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill on coastal areas.

With an emergency allocation of 1 million compute hours from the National Science Foundation TeraGrid project, Clint Dawson, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and head of the Computational Hydraulics Group at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES) at The University of Texas at Austin, Rick Luettich, professor of marine sciences and head of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Joannes Westerink, professor of civil engineering at the University of Notre Dame, are running high resolution models of the Louisiana coast to track the oil spill through the complicated marshes, wetlands and channels in the area.

Dawson and his colleagues have access to highly accurate descriptions of the Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas coastlines, due to earlier hurricane storm surge research. "What our model can do that a lot of the other models can't do is track the oil spill up into the marshes and wetlands, because we have fine-scale resolution in those areas," he said.

This kind of detail will help the scientists determine how the oil may spread in environmentally sensitive areas. The team's 2D and 3D coastal models will also take into account the Gulf waves, which may bring the oil closer to the Texas coast.

Of chief concern is the possibility that a hurricane moving through the Gulf may bring the oil inland. The team hopes to be able to provide support for disaster responders, who may need to make emergency management decisions based on the computer models.

The primary reason for using Ranger is the massive scale of the data involved in this type of modeling and simulation. The researchers receive satellite imagery of the spill from the Center for Space Research at UT Austin and download meteorological data from the National Centers for Environmental Protection (NCEP) every six hours. They combine this data into a 72-hour forecast at 50 meter resolution, which is 10 to 20 times more detailed than many other models being run on the spill.

This is one of many emergency response efforts for which TACC has provided computational power. "Ranger gives us the ability to support an immense amount of computational research, while reacting quickly to urgent needs such as hurricane predictions, swine flu outbreak scenarios, and this oil spill," said TACC Director Jay Boisseau.

For each model run, the ADCIRC (Advanced Circulation Model for Oceanic, Coastal and Estuarine Waters) simulation uses 4096 cores on Ranger for three hours; the group has been performing between one and four simulations per day.

Gordon Wells, program manager for real-time satellite remote sensing at the Center for Space Research, serves as a technology adviser for state emergency management efforts. He is optimistic that the 3D models will show how the oil spill interacts with underwater vegetation, and provide a more accurate forecast of the environmental impact that the spill will have in the coming months.


The Ranger supercomputer is funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Cyberinfrastructure "Path to Petascale" program. The project is a collaboration among the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), The University of Texas at Austin Institute for Computational Engineering and Science (ICES), Oracle/Sun Microsystems, Advanced Micro Devices, and Cornell University. TACC's Ranger and Lonestar supercomputers, and the Spur and Longhorn visualization resources, are key systems of the NSF TeraGrid (www, a nationwide network of academic HPC centers, sponsored by the NSF Office of Cyberinfrastructure, which provides scientists and researchers access to large-scale computing, networking, data-analysis and visualization resources and expertise. For more information on TACC, see


Faith Singer-Villalobos

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Aaron Dubrow

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