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Home > iSGTW 7 January 2009 > Opinion - UK grid researchers aid efforts to understand climate change

Opinion - UK grid researchers aid efforts to understand climate change


Then and now: The way Muir Glacier looked back in August, 1941, when it was photographed by W.O. Field on White Thunder Ridge, Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska. (See photo at bottom of page for comparison.) Image courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology, Boulder, Colorado.

(Our latest opinion piece comes from a team of researchers at the Natural Environment Research Council Datagrid (NDG), and OMII-UK.)

To learn about climate change and its effects, climate researchers have to play detective. And as detectives, they need access to a wide variety of clues, on everything from the rate of coral growth in the Great Barrier Reef to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

For instance, one climate researcher—Beate Liepert at Columbia University—has floated above the greater New York City area in a hot-air balloon, in order to collect aerosol samples in the atmosphere and see how they affect the weather. (In a nutshell, she told iSGTW earlier that she found that aerosols make wet areas wetter, and dry areas drier. So India’s monsoons will be more intense, and Australia’s droughts will be hotter, drier and longer.)

Researchers also need a place to store all their evidence, in such a way that their huge data sets, drawn from wildly disparate sources scattered over large geographic areas, can be dealt with efficiently and transparently, by multiple users, and still be secure.

To add to the problem, more information keeps coming in, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would ultimately like climate researchers to have access to fifteen-hundred terabytes of data – fifty-times more than previously available.

Storing this data volume using conventional methods would be difficult, so the IPCC is considering a distributed archive based on the pooled resources of the British Atmospheric Data Center, the World Data Center for Climate in Germany and a US federation led by the PCMDI (Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison).

But how do you keep this information secure, in a way that is transparent to users?

How Muir Glacier looked in summer 2004, in a photo taken from the same spot as the 1941 photo at the top of this page. Image courtesy of National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology, Boulder, Colorado.

NDG Security

It was a challenge overcome with help from the expertise developed by the Natural Environment Research Council Datagrid (NDG) during an OMII-UK funded project. Their solution: NDG Security.

This software provides authentication of a user’s identity and authorization of their rights over distributed resources. It enables scientists to discover, access and visualize data that spans data-provider organizations. Secure access is key: without it, some providers would not publish their data. NDG Security is easy to deploy and maintain, and flexible so that partner organizations do not have to change their pre-existing infrastructures. It supports Single Sign On, and a system of access-role mapping, which enables federated access to data whilst respecting existing role structures at individual sites. Use of Python programming language provides a familiar and easy-to-use environment for the scientific user base.

NDG is now used by some of the major UK data centers, such as the British Atmospheric Data Centre and the British Oceanographic Data Center. Related projects have also included the Met Office and partners from industry. The recent funding from OMII-UK has greatly enhanced the interoperability of NDG Security, which has placed it for the current interoperability work with the Earth System Grid (ESG)—the team responsible for developing the IPCC’s distributed archive. The collaboration has agreed on a standards-based approach for secure distributed access. ESG software will form the heart of the distributed archive, and the ESG group of Earth Science research centers will form a natural extension of the core data archive. The security solution adopted for the NDG/ESG collaboration will facilitate the inclusion of other institutions into the consortium, whether they are from Europe, the US or elsewhere.

This work for the IPCC is a good example of what the grid does well: complex problems, huge data sets and multiple users are all dealt with efficiently. It is also a vindication of the open-source model for funding, with money invested in one project creating expertise that can be re-used to directly benefit other projects. If we are to prepare for climate change, it is vital that we have accurate information about the potential changes that we may encounter—and the grid may be the key to that information.

Simon Hettrick, OMII-UK and Phil Kershaw, NERC DataGrid

(Editor’s note: For more background on climate change, see RealClimate.org, run by working climate researchers at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York.)

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