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Earth system modelling in New Zealand: Turning big data in big science

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posted on 2020-03-11, 04:38 authored by Jonny Williams, Olaf Morgenstern, Erik Behrens, Mike Williams

After several years of development, the first results and papers showcasing the output from New Zealand’s earth system modelling community are now available. This represents a large body of behind-the-scenes work from multiple NIWA and NeSI staff, not to mention our international collaborators in the Unified Model partnership.

This is all very well, but how are we going about turning approximately 0.5PB of raw model output into science which enables New Zealanders to ‘anticipate, adapt, manage risk, and thrive in a changing climate.’ This is the mission statement of the Deep South National Science Challenge, through which this work is funded.

We are simulating three greenhouse gas emissions scenarios representative of an unknown future. From the model output, we can estimate how the world will warm. However, earth system models enable us to do a lot more than this. We can also examine changes to chemical processes in the atmosphere, biogeochemical processes in the ocean, as well as changes to the terrestrial biosphere.

I will discuss the theory and practice of turning this raw data into useful science in an HPC context. I will also present some early findings from our model, which differs from its parent model – the UKESM – in its ability to simulate the ocean circulation around Aotearoa New Zealand at high, ‘eddy permitting’ resolution.


Jonny Williams moved to New Zealand in 2015 after a postdoc in physical geography at Bristol University studying extreme warm paleoclimates of the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods. Before this he worked in private practice as a junior consultant at Eunomia Research and Consulting and as a climate scientist at the UK Met Office. Jonny has a PhD in molecular electronics from the University of Bath and a degree in physics from Imperial College London.

Erik Behrens leads the ocean modelling project, to further improve NZESM, in the second phase of the Deep South. He has a PhD and degree in physical oceanography from the Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel, Germany. His main interest is to understand how oceans around New Zealand and around Antarctica change due to climate change.

Olaf Morgenstern is leading climate modelling at NIWA and for the Deep South National Science Challenge. Prior to joining NIWA worked for Cambridge University in the UK and the Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. His main research interest is in the linkages between physical climate change and atmospheric composition. He holds a PhD in meteorology from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and a physics degree from Freiburg University, Germany.

Mike Williams has been the director of the Deep South National Science Challenge since 2016. He obtained his PhD in polar oceanography from the University of Tasmania in 1999 and was an assistant professor at the Niels Bohr Institute for Physics in Copenhagen, Denmark for three. He joined in NIWA in 2001 and has had various roles, including leading the climate observations programme and Antarctic research programmes.


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