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Los Alamos National Laboratory


The world's leading ocean modeling program is located in Los Alamos rather than in the middle of the south pacific as one might think. Musician-turned chemist-turned biogeochemist Scott Elliott has worked in the world-class ocean modeling facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 10 years. He can attest to the surprised faces when he says he performs ocean modeling in Los Alamos, New Mex. " People look at me like - 'you do this kind of work on a mountain top, seven thousand feet up, in the middle of a desert, a thousand miles from the nearest body of water bigger than a bathtub, are you nuts'?" Actually, it makes perfect sense if they just look a little deeper, said Elliot. Because of today's wired world environment, he can contact anyone in the world he needs to. Location is not a problem, he said. All one needs are currents, geochemistry and biology to simulate the important processes that effect global climates and occur in the ocean. That can be done extremely well with a super computer and a lot of talented people who know how to make these sorts of computations happen on that big computer, he said. The latest ocean modeling projects are centering around carbon management and carbon sequestration. There are ways to manipulate the chemistry and biology in the ocean to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The CO2 is largely responsible for global warming, said Elliott. Plankton floating on the ocean's surface removes the carbon that causes CO2. Plankton sinks into the deep sea when it dies and takes the carbon with it. It acts as a pumping device to get rid of the carbon. " You can actually see plankton from satellites and we use that to validate our modeling," he said. "Ten years from now we may use these very detailed models to help major fishing nations find their catch." Japan devotes a great deal of resources to earth simulation because their economy is so dependent on their fisheries, Elliott said. They have actually pulled ahead in terms of their super computer capabilities in the last three or four years. They built a vector super computer that is superior to the model used here. " Japan doesn't have the skill level that exists here and there are talks going on to let our experts do the modeling using their vector super computer," he said. " Our resources have steadily declined over the last decade," said Elliott. Originally, the program was viewed as a wonderful demonstration of the capabilities of the super computer. They went beyond that to research how to remove carbon CO2 from the atmosphere to mitigate global warming. But the emphasis and resources have really been poured into defense and security since Sept. 11. After postdoctoral work in Germany, Elliott worked for some people involved in the environmental sciences. His boss got him connected with a position at LANL. There were some big atmospheric general circulation models being applied to nuclear winter problems in the late 80's and early 90's at Los Alamos, he said. He was hired to put photochemistry into those models including ozone and air pollution routines. After a couple of years, the funding on that project folded. " As many people may know, you have to be fast on your feet at LANL," said Elliott. "I looked around for something else to do and found some guys who developed the atmospheric general circulation models had now moved on to ocean modeling. They were applying the super computers of the era - the thinking machine and connecting machine, but no one was doing chemistry in the model so I volunteered and got the job." Elliott was a serious jazz pianist as a high school student in Palm Springs, Calif. He didn't think he could make a very good living at it so he earned undergraduate degrees from UC-San Diego and a Ph.D. in chemistry from UC-Irvine. " There are interesting similarities between music and science," said Elliott. "A lot of the computer programming we do in this kind of work is similar to scoring music. They both involve pulling together a big package of information to thrill and interest people." " It would be an extremely good idea for kids in college to think about going into this field," Elliott said. "I believe it's really going to boom between the next ten to 25 years. This is really an example of earth systems modeling. Eventually these sorts of simulations are going to be coupled with global economy, atmospheric climate, and terrestrial eco-systems to yield true earth systems models that will enable us to understand what we are doing to the planet. And it's just a lot of fun."