Supercomputing technology, according to Al Gore, will help the human race reverse climate change, both by aiding the expansion of renewable energy use and by creating models that help people understand the severity of global warming.
Speaking Thursday morning at the SC09 supercomputing conference in Portland, Ore., the former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner told researchers that their expertise can help convince the public and politicians that action is needed to reduce carbon emissions.
"Supercomputing has given us the most powerful tool in the history of civilization," Gore said. "It has become a third basic form of knowledge creation, alongside inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Computational science, in some ways a blend of the first two, allows us to vastly extend our ability to understand phenomena and complex realities, and investigate new complex realities that would never be possible except for the ability conferred upon us by supercomputing."
Because of the way humans evolved, we are conditioned to react to immediate threats, such as animal predators or other humans who are warlike, Gore said. As a result, we rarely experience a visceral reaction to challenges like global warming in which cause and effect are separated by many years. Polls show that people are concerned about global warming, but do not rank the problem as highly as most other threats, Gore said.
Climate modeling aided by supercomputing, however, can "make impossibly large phenomena small enough to see, and impossibly small phenomena large enough for us humans to see," and thus induce the type of visceral reactions that spur political change, Gore said.
"That has profound implications for how we approach the interface between this incredibly powerful tool you are continuing to develop, and the political decisions that have to be made based on computational science," Gore said. "One of the remaining challenges is how we as human beings individually, and for my purposes collectively in democracy and political systems relate as human beings to the incredibly powerful tool of supercomputing."
Supercomputing will also play a major role in creating energy systems that use renewable sources of power, he said. Wind, solar energy and geothermal energy can replace oil, Gore said, but there are numerous challenges. The energy grid itself is obsolete, and responsible for billions of dollars of losses each year due to unplanned outages, Gore said.
A new "super grid" will be needed to reach remote regions that are ideal for harvesting wind and solar energy, and then deliver power to urban areas, Gore said.
"We have to have a grid that reaches them and we have to infuse that grid with intelligence, in transmission, distribution and storage assets distributed throughout the grid," he said. "The best wind areas are not even being used because that network does not extend to them. Integrating those intermittent sources [of energy such as wind and solar] into a new super grid is a job for supercomputing, and some of you have made great advances already in that field."