Intel Supercomputer Tracks Movement of BP Oil Spill

An Intel supercomputer, "Encanto," is helping researchers track the direction of the oil spewing from the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some of the oil from the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico will migrate around the tip of Florida and make its way up the East Coast, according to the calculations from a supercomputer at an Intel campus in New Mexico.

The Intel supercomputer, powered by 3,500 quad-core Xeon processors, has been running a complex program simulating ocean currents in hopes of giving residents, researchers and response teams an idea of where the oil from BP's broken underwater well, which began gushing as many as 60,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico when it burst April 20, is going.

Intel, in an Inside Scoop column, said its three-year-old "Encanto" supercomputer, which was the third-fastest system in the world when it was introduced in 2007 and is now the 32nd most powerful computer, has been running the Parallel Ocean Program model, an experimental program from NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) that was designed to measure the various flows and currents in the ocean.

Click here to see how Google Earth is tracking the oil spill.

Just days after the BP oil spill started, NCAR administrators decided to see if they could use this program to try to see where the crude may travel, according to Synte Peacock, an NCAR scientist.

"A number of us were discussing why there were no longer-term scenarios about the impact of the spill," Peacock said in the column. "Then we realized we had a perfect model to do just that-the Parallel Ocean Program."

The researchers reconfigured the program to use the site of the spill as a starting point, then let model run.

"We basically dropped a 'virtual dye' in the water, and then watched to see where it would go," she said.

What the program showed was that the oil closest to the water surface-as far as 65 feet down-will be carried hundreds of miles by the Loop Current in the gulf until it hits the west coast of Florida. The oil will move south, run around the southern tip of Florida and then quickly move north up the East Coast when it catches the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, extending for thousands of miles.

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil spill reach Florida?'" Peacock said. "Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster will likely reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."

To run its model, NCAR turned to Intel's Encanto supercomputer, which is housed at the chip giant's Rio Rancho, N.M., campus. The water-cooled supercomputer is housed in 28 tall cabinets.

NCAR and Intel ran different simulations that started with a different underlying current. Then the system would run the simulation and track where the oil went.

According to Intel, the six simulations took Encanto more than 250,000 hours of compute time and used 1,000 cores in a massively parallel computing process.

What the program found was that while the oil in the deeper part of the ocean was moving slowly, that crude closer to the surface was moving faster. However, the simulations showed that, once the oil hit the Gulf Stream, the current could carry the oil up to 100 miles a day, or 3,000 miles in a month.

Peacock said the simulations were less a forecast and more a possible projection of where the oil could go. More work is being done in such areas as adding in such measures as the oil's density and buoyancy, which will give the program a more accurate prediction, she said.

Meanwhile, BP executives are hopeful the latest effort to catch much of the oil spewing out of the break-this time to put another cap on the leaking oil well-will be more successful than past attempts.

According to news reports, about 81,000 square miles of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico have been closed since April 20.

BP announced July 12 that the cleanup efforts to date have cost the company about $3.5 billion.