The high-resolution E3SM earth system model simulates the strongest storms with surface winds exceeding 150 mph—hurricanes that leave cold wakes that are 2 to 4 degrees Celsius cooler than their surroundings. This simulation represents how sea surface temperature changes evolve as a hurricane (seen here approaching the U.S. East Coast) moves across the Atlantic and how the resultant cold wake affects subsequent intensification of the next hurricane. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The Earth’s infinite complexity continues to throw scientists curveballs, with polar ice melting, more extreme droughts and intense weather systems in virtually all corners of the globe. Hurricanes, for instance, seem to appear and then take turns that no one effectively predicts.

But scientists and engineers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy are planning on bringing unprecedented computer sophistication to simulate the entire planet’s dynamic forces, from water, to ice, land and air, in a holistic model.

The Energy Exascale Earth System Model, or E3SM, is going to be run on computers that aren’t even readily available yet—but it will do the unthinkable, understanding in detail how Earth’s many natural systems are changing right under our noses, officials say.

The end goal, from the American standpoint: preparing for the future, and especially for those energy needs.

“This model adds a much more complete representation between interaction of the energy system and the Earth system,” said David Bader, leader of the project, of Lawrence Livermore. “The increase in computing power allows us to add more detail to processes and interactions that results in more accurate and useful simulations than previous models.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today unveiled a powerful, new earth system model that uses the world’s fastest computers so that scientists can better understand how earth system processes interact today and how they may evolve in the future. The Energy Exascale Earth System model, or E3SM, is the product of four years of development by top geophysical and computational scientists across DOE’s laboratory complex. (Video Credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

The computing power is going to proceed with the Exascale Computing Initiative. The goal is to have computers by 2021 that can do a billion billion (not a typo, 10 to the 18th power) calculations per second. That would equal a thousand-fold increase in speed from a decade ago.

The hyper-complexity of factors that will be incorporated into the system at increased levels include regional air and water temperatures, water cycle tracking and regional availability, cryosphere changes (especially rapid changes), coastal flooding and the litany of human activities that affect natural processes.

Some examples cited by government scientists: tropical cyclones’ cold wakes, and how they interact with sea-level rise to create different storm surge problems; and how polar ice changes like melt and ice shelf loss change deep oceans currents, causing ripple effects leading to mid-latitude weather changes.

The E3SM project involves more than 100 scientists, engineers, and computer scientists from a variety of backgrounds and institutions, including national laboratories and multiple universities. The project has been in the works for several years, and was honored with the U.S. Secretary for Energy’s Achievement Award for 2015.