To try to assess global warming's impact on the environment and see if the world faces an abrupt climate change, Zhengyu Liu, director of the centre for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is turning to supercomputing technology.

Liu using a supercomputer made by Cray to run a continuous simulation of climate changes over the past 21,000 years, a span that reaches back to distant ice ages.

To prove what will happen in the future, Liu said he first must be certain of the past. That means running his computer simulations backward in time to see if they can accurately model past climatic events. If the models do provide an accurate mirror of climate history, then they can be used to predict the impact of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases on the planet, he said.

The work isn't just an academic exercise for Liu. "What is most urgent - what we want to know - is: 'Can the model produce some abrupt climate change event,'" he said.

By abrupt, Liu said he means an event that could occur within someone's lifetime, such as a vegetation collapse in part of the world similar to one that took place in Africa about 5,000 years ago, when trees there suddenly died.

"Abrupt change can happen," he said. But current computer models don't look at the planet's climate as a continuous unfolding event, and that keeps researchers from connecting different points in time to understand how climatic events connect. "They cannot simulate abrupt change at all," Liu said.

To run his models, Liu recently was awarded time on a Cray system at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Cray machine is based on dual-core versions of AMD's Opteron processor, with about 11,000 processor cores. Liu was given nearly 420,000 hours of processing time this year alone, for use as part of a multiyear project that began last year.

Liu's work underscores the importance that supercomputing has in climate change research. The models used to determine the impact of industrial gases are very complex and require enormous computing resources. And the work required to effectively utilise large supercomputers still has a long way to go, according to Liu and other researchers.

But already, climate research applications are increasing the demand for high-performance systems. By 2010, IDC expects annual worldwide spending on supercomputers used solely for climate research to reach nearly $500 million, up from $171 million in 2000 - an increase of almost 200 percent. That figure doesn't include supercomputers that may be used in a variety of research projects, including climate-related applications, said Steve Conway, an analyst at IDC.

Climate researchers have a relentless need for higher performance and faster speeds on simulations that can take weeks, months or even years to run because of their complexity. That need "is one of the big drivers for getting to peta-scale systems," Conway said, referring to supercomputers that will be able to process 1,000 FLOPS.

Cray is among the IT vendors that are delivering systems for use in climate and weather research. It recently manufactured machines for the Danish Meteorological Institute, the Swiss National Supercomputing centre and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The latter system, the UK's most powerful supercomputer to date, will be used for a variety of research issues, including weather applications.

Peter Ungaro, Cray's president and CEO, said that before researchers buy larger systems of that sort, they are forming groups "to build applications for next-generation machines."