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Complexity Systems Simulation modelling to provide solutions to atmospheric challenges

Published: 22 April 2010

The impact of the cloud of ash over the UK has underlined how important it is for scientists to gain a better understanding of the complex relationships that exist between socio-technological and geophysical systems that operate at the scale of countries and continents.

Last year the University of Southampton set up the interdisciplinary Institute for Complex Systems Simulation (ICSS) to address exactly these types of world-scale environmental issues.

"The difficulty at the moment is that no one can accurately measure the concentration of ash in the atmosphere on a large scale," says Dr Hans Fangohr, Head of the University's Computational Modelling Group.

"This is why we need to develop new ways to simulate the scenario so that we can better understand the spread of dispersed particles, such as volcano ash, in the atmosphere."

The ICSS's incoming cohort of 20 Complex Systems Simulation PhD students will use the University's new supercomputer, which is among the 25 fastest university machines in the world, to model complicated turbulent air flow, amongst other things, when they begin their studies later this year.

By combining research expertise from engineering, Earth sciences, remote sensing and oceanography, their research has the potential to devise methods to improve predictions of the concentration of pollutants in the air, thus enabling key decision makers to determine levels of risk with greater reliability and efficiency.

"At the moment, the only way that it would be possible to measure the concentration of ash in the atmosphere systematically is to send out thousands of aircraft and fly them through the clouds taking measurements, which is obviously not possible," says Dr Fangohr.

"Our investment in complex systems simulation and our cohort of students will work to make these predictions better in the future, thus ensuring safety and minimising cost and disruption."

Last year, the ICSS welcomed its first 21 PhD students and is now in the process of recruiting its second cohort.

"What strikes me about our students is their quality and the diversity of their interests," says Dr Seth Bullock, Head of the Science and Engineering of Natural Systems Group at the School of Electronics and Computer Science, and a Director of the ICSS.

Current students are set to use the new supercomputer to carry out simulations ranging from synthetic biology and neuroscience, through transportation and power networks, to glaciation and ocean processes, with one-third of them modelling some kind of evolutionary, ecological or environmental scenario.

The second cohort of ICSS PhD students is expected to be similarly diverse, and will tackle a newly expanded set of research domains, including socio-economic modelling of business, finance, and society.

"We want to help students tackle modelling problems with relevance to the real social world," says Dr Bullock.

"We are also seeing increasing interest in bionanotechnology as researchers look towards the construction of molecular machines and improved understanding of how drugs interact with living systems. The Southampton supercomputer will enable us to build and explore new models of these kinds of complex systems."

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