Modern Australian

How Australia's supercomputers crunched the numbers to guide our bushfire and pandemic response

  • Written by Sean Smith, Professor and Director, NCI Australia, Australian National University

As 2020 began, Australia was stunned by the worst bushfires on record. Six months later we are weathering the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

This year, perhaps more than ever before, decision-makers, emergency services, health providers and threatened communities have needed fast, reliable information to understand what’s happening. And beyond that, they have needed high-powered modelling to get a sense of what is yet to come.

That’s where supercomputers come in. Australia’s high-performance research computing infrastructure is led by two centres: the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI Australia) in Canberra and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.

NCI Australia is home to Gadi, the most powerful supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, which can do in an hour what would take your average desktop PC around 35 years running flat out. The Pawsey centre hosts the Nimbus cloud, which is specially designed for data-intensive research work in cutting-edge fields such as space science.

Both centres operate around the clock every day of the year. Even without a crisis, they process unimaginable quantities of data to deliver analysis and forecasts for decision-makers across the nation. To take one example, NCI’s routine work for Digital Earth Australia helps to identify soil and coastal erosion, crop growth, water quality and changes to cities and regions.

Supercomputing behind the scenes

By their nature, high-performance research computers operate mostly behind the scenes. They provide infrastructure that is less visible but no less important than a ship or a telescope, and the expertise to help researchers use it.

When Australian government agencies need to make decisions to respond to a crisis like the bushfires or COVID-19, they draw on decades of Australian and international research backed by high-performance computing and data infrastructure.

Last summer, satellite images shocked the world with detailed and strangely beautiful views of swirls of bushfire smoke the size of global weather patterns. Our Kiwi colleagues woke to apocalyptic skies, tipped off beforehand by Australian and NZ collaborations with Japan’s Himawari-8 and -9 weather satellite mission.

How Australia's supercomputers crunched the numbers to guide our bushfire and pandemic response The Sentinel Earth-observing satellites provided a rich stream of data about the Australian bushfires in close to real time. ESA / Copernicus, CC BY-NC-SA

Research satellites like the European Sentinel-3 with a wider global view continued to track the plume as it circled the planet. NCI Australia hosts a regional data hub to support Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation program.

Read more: Australia's bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it

Data-driven models running on supercomputers can provide earlier and more accurate warning of firestorms, floods, hailstorms, cyclones and other extremes. Better warnings give emergency services crucial hours that save lives and property.

Both national facilities are contributing resources to support researchers in Australia in the fight against COVID-19.

With the Gadi supercomputer, NCI is providing the equivalent of more than 4,500 years of computer time to support three research groups. Pawsey is providing access to more than 1,100 desktop’s worth of computing power on the newly deployed Nimbus cloud for researchers across five projects.

National infrastructure working at scale

The Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) has invested A$70 million in each centre for upgrades to ensure the facilites can keep up with Australian research across all scientific domains. NCI’s Gadi supercomputer is about nine times more powerful than its predecessor, while the first phase of Pawsey’s upgrade has already delivered ten times more cloud storage and boosted network capabilities fivefold.

Reliable, collaborative facilities like NCI and Pawsey are essential to develop and improve immensely complex global and local models and prediction systems used by national and state governments.

The NCI and Pawsey systems support much more than climate and weather data and pandemic modelling. Other projects support gene sequencing, population mapping, transmission and containment modelling, and global economic predictions.

Scale, collaboration and speed

Scaling up our research computing capacity is important to meet the challenges of ever-growing amounts of research data. Collaboration makes it possible to access the best expertise. Speed is essential to meet the urgent demands of decision makers.

Supercomputers connected to massive data systems and supported by expert staff can yield crucial insights at scale, quickly enough to help our agencies identify and respond to crises. Faster processing also means researchers can identify and model trends that would otherwise go unnoticed, but which require early intervention.

Supercharging the relevant science can deliver real economic, environmental and public health outcomes. The need for informed crisis response does not look like it will go away any time soon.

Authors: Sean Smith, Professor and Director, NCI Australia, Australian National University

Read more


288 new coronavirus cases marks Victoria's worst day. And it will probably get worse before it gets better

Victoria has recorded 288 new COVID-19 cases since yesterday, the largest daily increase we’ve seen so far.This big jump must have the Victorian government and health authorities very concerned, especially...

Number of Australian returnees allowed each week slashed to 4175, as Victoria records 288 new cases

AAP/James GourleyThe number of Australian citizens and residents allowed to return to Australia each week is to be cut to 4175, after agreement by national cabinet on Friday.States will also...

Which face mask should I wear?

ShutterstockAustralia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly today recommended people in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire wear masks when leaving the house:[…] If people have symptoms and they need to go...

Rising coronavirus cases among Victorian health workers could threaten our pandemic response

ShutterstockOver the past week, we’ve seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 infections among health-care workers in Victoria.This includes a doctor at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital, one staff member...

Michelle Grattan on the return to lockdown and Eden-Monaro

University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Paddy Nixon and Professorial Fellow Michelle Grattan discuss the week in politics including the return to lockdown in Victoria, National Cabinet setting to...

Actually, Mr Trump, it's stronger environmental regulation that makes economic winners

Donald Trump has ordered US federal agencies to bypass environmental protection laws and fast-track pipeline, highway and other infrastructure projects. Signing the executive order last month, the US president declared...

Is cancel culture silencing open debate? There are risks to shutting down opinions we disagree with

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NDEarlier this week, 150 high-profile authors, commentators and scholars signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine claiming that “open debate and toleration of differences” are under...

see how bushfire and rain turned the Macquarie perch's home to sludge

Mannus Creek in NSW during the 2020 bushfire period.Luke Pearce, Author providedThis article is a preview of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project...

Howzat! We can all learn from elite batsmen, and not just about cricket

While many people may enjoy a game of backyard cricket, only a few go on to become elite professional batsmen in Australia.Cricket batting is example of what human skills can...

Hidden Hand – Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World

ROMAN PILIPEY/EPAIn Hidden Hand, China scholars Clive Hamilton and Marieke Ohlberg examine the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Europe and North America in a similar way to how Hamilton dissected...

Which species will win and lose in a warmer climate? It depends where they evolved

ShutterstockAs the global climate shifts, it’s important to know which species have adaptations to survive. Our research published today in PNAS found it largely depends on where they evolved. We...

The government would save $1 billion a year with proposed university reforms — but that's not what it's telling us

ShutterstockFederal Education Minister Dan Tehan released his Job-ready Graduates Package on June 19 2020. In his National Press Club address, he said it would help drive our economic recovery after...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

9 Reasons Sydney Is the Best Place to LiveWhat Do Pool Cleaners Do?ULTIMATE GUIDE TO STUDENT ACCOMMODATION6 Tips For Setting Up a Beautifully Functional Home NurseryPruning, What Is It And Are You Doing It Correctly?Fantastic Fishing Destinations Around AustraliaAre 4wd wheels expensive?What Actually Do Stamp Collectors Do?How to find affordable steel blue work boots in Australia for safety6 Ways To Get Quality Sleep When It’s HotThe Dangers of Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure7 Tips for Renovating a Heritage Home8 Bathroom Renovation Tips for the ElderlyWhy Flying Kites Is Considered A Fun Activity In PerthHow TV Shows Affect the Online Casino Industry in Australia