Look out over the landscape of the area west of Cheyanne, Wyoming and you may see antelope, bison, and snow-capped peaks in the distance. But this area is home to something else as well: one of the fastest computers in the world.

The supercomputer at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) is able to run complex models like those that help us understand climate and weather. Supercomputers have gotten faster and faster over the last half century or so. This has allowed models to get more complex and detailed. The first supercomputer had about the same computing power as a modern smartphone, but the computer at the NWSC is made of 72,000 processors wired together to work as one.  It would take hundreds of millions of years for a person to do the calculations that the supercomputer can do in a few seconds.

roomful of whirring black boxes, wires, and blinking lights was amazing, especially when considering what it was doing – simulating Earth to see how climate changes, where air pollution goes, how severe weather events occur. 

At NWSC, the systems in the building keep the computer running. Within the building are gigantic emergency generators, enormous mufflers, sixteen miles of cable, huge batteries with 4-megawatts of backup power, pipes that send water through the building, and a wall of fans and filters.

It takes a lot of energy to power a supercomputer and, because it generates tremendous heat, it can take even more energy to keep it cool. Dealing with the heat is serious business. The building is customized to be a supercomputer home – it was built to deal with heat. The building, which is certified LEED Gold, is able to maintain a cool temperature without using much energy. Last year the air conditioning was only needed for about 200 hours. An elaborate system of water and fans acts like a circulatory system for heat around the building, drawing heat produced by the computers away. Wyoming’s cool dry winds help, too.

If you are in the Cheyenne, Wyoming, area, stop by and say ‘hi’ to the supercomputer. The visitor center is open weekdays and Saturdays. The NWSC Climate Modeling page gives an overview of how climate models work.