In a move reminiscent of the SETI search for extra-terrestrial intelligence which used individuals' PCs via a small programme, IBM and the University of Cape Town are modelling the effects of climate change on Africa.

The project, called "[email protected]," will use the potentially vast computational power of World Community Grid, a virtual supercomputer comprised of hundreds of thousands of individuals who donate their unused computer time, making it as powerful as one of the world’s top five supercomputers.

To donate their unused computer time to this project, individuals register on and install a free, small software program on to their computers. When computers are idle, for example, when people are at lunch, their computers request data from World Community Grid’s server. These computers then perform drug discovery computations using this data, and send the results back to the server, prompting it for a new piece of work. A screensaver will tell individuals when their computers are being used.

IBM's announcement states: "Climate change is of grave concern in all areas, but in developing regions such as Africa, the impact can be more acute because of the lack of access to healthcare and other social services. Widespread floods, for example, can lead to water borne illness and related diseases such as dengue fever or malaria, which are spread by infected mosquitoes that thrive in water. Droughts can have devastating effects as well by bringing on pervasive food shortages."

By making better predictions about how global climate change might realistically affect regions of Africa, resource managers can start to make decisions that might alleviate the adverse effects. For example, they could begin planning an irrigation infrastructure or promoting appropriate drought resistant crops. Researchers will use the hopefully huge computational power of the World Community Grid to improve the models used to predict the climate by conducting simulations in small regions of Africa and then checking them against real observations.

Large-scale global climate models provide people with a general idea of what the climate may be like over a wide area, but do not necessarily reflect what will happen in a particular region because the global models do not sufficiently take into account large lakes, mountains, or plains that can affect the local climate.