The award-winning research used innovative algorithms and a mathematical approach called an implicit solver to realistically simulate the most extreme topographic features on the Earth’s surface for the first time.AUSTIN, TX — Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, IBM Research, New York University and the California Institute of Technology have been awarded the 2015 Gordon Bell Prize for realistically simulating current conditions of the Earth’s interior. The team’s work could herald a major step toward more accurately predicting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The accomplishment was made using advanced analytics running on the “Sequoia” IBM BlueGene/Q located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

The award-winning research used innovative algorithms and a mathematical approach called an implicit solver to realistically simulate the most extreme topographic features on the Earth’s surface for the first time. The team was able to accurately predict the velocity, width, depth and motions of the Earth’s plates while also simulating the flow of mantle. Remarkably, a complete simulation was produced in less than 24 hours, a major milestone, considering it involved more than 602 billion unknown factors, including velocity and pressure.

The central challenge in designing realistic simulations of the Earth’s core, including the flow of mantle, lies in the trillions of variables required to produce an accurate computer model, ranging from the thickness of the plates to the viscosity of the mantle. Only a few years ago, most experts considered realistic simulations of mantle convection inconceivable.

The simulations were performed on Sequoia, which consists of 96 IBM BlueGene/Q racks, reaching a theoretical peak performance of 20.1 petaflops. Each rack consists of 1,024 computer nodes, hosting 18 core POWER processor chips designed for big data computations that are running at 1.6 GHz. The achievement reached an unprecedented 97 percent software scalability efficiency, a new world record. Without these advancements, complex simulations of this size could have not been performed.

“These advances will open the door to addressing such fundamental questions as what are the main drivers of plate motion and what are the key processes governing the occurrence of great earthquakes,” said Professor Georg Stadler of New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

“While the conventional view is that the goal of efficiently solving highly nonlinear equations on millions of cores is not possible, we demonstrated that, with a careful redesign of discretization, algorithms, solvers and implementation, this goal is indeed possible. This work will have application to a much broader class of problems involving complex multiscale behavior,” said Omar Ghattas, Professor of Geological Sciences and of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Center for Computational Geosciences at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, University of Texas at Austin.

Despite the frequency of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by the movement of the massive plates of our planet, scientists lack answers to many of the fundamental principles behind these geological forces. In fact, “mantle convection” has been designated one of the "10 Grand Research Questions in Earth Sciences" by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

“We have only begun to demonstrate and explore how Big Data, advanced algorithms and supercomputing can be combined to realistically simulate the most extreme nonlinear, heterogeneous forces of nature,” said Costas Bekas, manager of Foundations of Cognitive Solutions, IBM Research - Zurich. “We envision applying the extreme availability of field sensor data and cognitive computing to absorb all of the knowledge there is on a topic and enabling practitioners to reduce the time to solution from years to weeks and even days for everything from inventing a new material to discovering an untapped source of energy.”

Authors of the paper detailing the work include:

  • Subhash Saini (Chair) — NASA Ames Research Center|
  • Johann Rudi — The University of Texas at Austin
  • Cristiano I. Malossi — IBM Corporation
  • Tobin Isaac — The University of Texas at Austin
  • Georg Stadler — Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences
  • Michael Gurnis — California Institute of Technology
  • Peter W. J. Staar — IBM Corporation
  • Yves Ineichen — IBM Corporation
  • Costas Bekas — IBM Corporation
  • Alessandro Curioni — IBM Corporation
  • Omar Ghattas — The University of Texas at Austin

IBM scientists have now been awarded the Gordon Bell Prize five times, most recently in 2013.

The team’s research was reported in the SC15 paper “An Extreme-Scale Implicit Solver for Complex PDEs: Highly Heterogeneous Flow in Earth’s Mantle,” authored by Johann Rudi, A. Cristiano I. Malossi, Tobin Isaac, Georg Stadler, Michael Gurnis, Peter W. J. Staar, Yves Ineichen, Costas Bekas, Alessandro Curioni, and Omar Ghattas. The paper is available from

About the Gordon Bell Prize

The Gordon Bell Prize recognizes the extraordinary progress made each year in the innovative application of parallel computing to challenges in science, engineering and large-scale data analytics. Prizes may be awarded for peak performance or special achievements in scalability and time-to-solution on important science and engineering problems. Financial support of the $10,000 prize is made possible by Gordon Bell, a pioneer in high-performance and parallel computing.

About IBM Research

Now in its 70th year, IBM Research includes more than 3,000 researchers in 12 labs located across six continents. Scientists from IBM Research have produced six Nobel Laureates, 10 U.S. National Medals of Technology, five U.S. National Medals of Science, six Turing Awards, five Gordon Bell Prizes, 19 inductees in the National Academy of Sciences and 20 inductees into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame — the most of any company.