Budget 2020: Keeping Australia at the forefront of weather and climate modelling

The Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator quietly picked up AU$7.6 million in funding.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Hidden away in this week's federal Budget was the funding of ACCESS, the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator, to become a National Research Infrastructure (NRI).

ACCESS is Australia's climate and weather model and as Professor Andy Hogg from the Australian National University College of Science explained, ACCESS is a framework for several different models of the atmosphere, oceans, land, and sea ice to understand the behaviour of the Earth system as a whole.

"ACCESS is used for a lot of different things; it's used for any prediction of future weather and climate in Australia, across all timescales, and it's also used particularly in the university sector as a research tool to understand how they ocean behaves or the climate system or the atmosphere," Hogg told ZDNet.

ACCESS is used mostly by climate researchers across the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, and the university sector.

Currently, ACCESS is maintained by the different institutions that use it, volunteering their funds to support the model.

But the AU$7.6 million allocated over three years in the federal Budget will provide funding directly to the model itself.

"By providing that secure funding line for the model, then there will be a team of software engineers, for example, who will work on the model to improve the model for the benefit of all researchers," Hogg said.

"The reason I think this is really significant is because most of the other research infrastructure funding in Australia is for hardware, for machines, a big computer or for a mass spectrometer or a telescope. What's different here is that the government has essentially recognised that software is infrastructure and they've provided the funding to curate and develop that software for the benefit of researchers.

See also: A long-term battle: The tech industry's role in combatting climate change

The ACCESS software isn't exactly an off-the-shelf buy, with Hogg explaining that it's really code that has been developed over decades.

"This initiative will fund further development of the software, which will keep Australia competitive in the world of climate and ocean research," he added.

"Climate and ocean codes are getting so complicated now that the number of people that can understand everything is reducing, so having that specialist knowledge of the code itself is what will enable [further research].

"So much of our effort goes into developing this software and yet until now there's been no coherent funding line to curate and make that software available for others to use, and it's just such an important infrastructure for fields like climate science and I think this is a really great initiative."

The ACCESS-NRI will turn ACCESS into software infrastructure that, along with NCI's high-performance data and computing infrastructure, will provide the research tools and research collaboration needed to address national challenges associated with weather and climate risk and environmental change.

NCI director Professor Sean Smith said running the ACCESS models is a hugely CPU and data-intensive process.

NCI's Gadi supercomputer is the only system available to researchers that can run ACCESS. 

"NCI supercomputing power has been pivotal in the development of the ACCESS suite of models since their inception," Smith added. "We look forward to supporting the ACCESS-NRI as it takes the already successful ACCESS models to the next level, and as it becomes part of Australia's excellent National Collaborative Research Infrastructure System, NCRIS."

In addition to ACCESS, further projects funded under the 2020 Research Infrastructure Investment Plan include AU$36.3 million over three years for the early implementation of the Sea Simulator project to support the Great Barrier Reef Restoration and Adaption Program; AU$8.9 million over three years to increase the capabilities of the humanities, arts, social sciences, and indigenous e-research platforms; and AU$8.3 million over three years to establish new synthetic biology research infrastructure to facilitate rapid responses to emerging disease and biosecurity risks and address critical gaps in technological platforms and informatics. 

All of the funding under the plan will commence from 2020-21.   

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