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Skilling at Fermilab: Supercomputer aids scientists tracking supertornadoes, severe weather

Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014 5:58 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 6:44 p.m. CST

BATAVIA – When a supertornado tears through a town and demolishes every building in sight, the funnel cloud and its trail of destruction is clear to the naked eye.

But when a computing data network uses a supercomputer the size of two football fields to collect the data and digitize its images, scientists learn more about what creates and sustains these destructive storms – and helps predict them.

WGN chief meteorologist Tom Skilling hosted two presentations from various scientists and meteorologists at Fermilab Saturday at the 34th annual tornado and severe weather seminar, which included the effects of climate change on weather.

"Climate change – it's real," Skilling said. "It's happening."

Donna Cox, leader of the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, presented the University of Illinois' supercomputer, Blue Waters. Cox said Blue Waters is the fastest supercomputer on any university campus and one of the fastest in the world.

A professor of art and design, Cox said she works with scientists to visualize their data.

"Most people do not know that numerical models permeate their everyday lives, from cars to air planes to the very financial and economic models that forecast our economy," Cox said. "We have worked with Argonne National Laboratories to visualize a … model of traffic in downtown Chicago and how to reroute traffic during severe storms."

She said scientists use the supercomputer as a digital laboratory to study many aspects of life on Earth, especially trying to understand the nature of weather, and the effects of climate change.

"We can look inside and see an anatomy of a tornado [because] the only way to look at that data is to visualize it," Cox said. "Here in Illinois, we connect these science teams all over the world. We provide some of the best supercomputing and innovation through Blue Waters … support hundreds of millions of dollars of research."

Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn spoke briefly about the deadly tornadoes the state experienced in 2012 and 2013, as well as drought and flooding. Quinn also serves on President Obama's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise his administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities dealing with the impact of climate change.

"We've had such severe weather in the last year in Illinois," Quinn said to a crowd of nearly 1,000 people in Fermi's Ramsey Auditorium. "Last April, we had the flood all across our state. We never saw anything like it in the history of Illinois since 1818. Then the killer tornado in November."

Quinn told of going to Washington and four other communities in the state that were hard hit by severe tornadoes.

"It took lives and in 12 seconds in Washington, Ill., it destroyed more than a thousand homes," Quinn said. "I think it was a blessing that we have the kind of advance predictions and advice and using social media in particular. It saved lives, clearly, last November. Because folks got the warning ahead of time that something very very dangerous was headed their way and they got to cover."

Quinn recounted how the early warning system allowed them to evacuate 60,000 people from Soldier Field's stadium.

The governor said many Washington residents were in church that Sunday and came back to homes that were not there any more.

Quinn also shared how a first-grade boy who attended his State of the State Address this year had saved his family by learning about the early warning system in school.

"His teacher told him when you hear those sirens, you have to get cover, get down in the basement," Quinn said. "So when he heard the sirens in Washington, Ill., he told his mom, 'You've got to come down now, Mom. You have to get  to safety right away.' She said, 'In a minute or two, honey.' He said, 'Right away, Mom.' "

She listened to her son and within a second or two after she went into the basement, their entire house was blown apart by this tornado.

"Severe weather is something we all have to deal with," Quinn said. "Climate change is something we don't look the other way on …. All of us have to understand that this is something that is the challenge of our time. This is something we have to work on together … We're Americans. We solve problems. We don't ignore problems."

Quinn is running for reelection and facing a Republican challenge from candidate Bruce Rauner, a wealthy North Shore businessman.

However, Quinn's appearance at the Fermi event is not a stop on his re-election campaign, a Fermi spokesman said.

Skilling and WGN, who organize the Tornado and Severe Storm Seminar at Fermilab every year, invited Quinn and his appearance was set up through Quinn's office staff, not his campaign staff, the spokesman said.

• More information about Blue Waters supercomputer at the U of I is available online at www.ncsa.illinois.edu.

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