Can a Climate Change Lab Stand the Heat?

Hey, y'all. My name is Sumner, and I'm from a small town in East Tennessee that just happens to be built around the Oak Ridge National Laboratory—one of the world's leading scientific communities. Scientists flock there from across the globe and it's a surprisingly diverse, international, and extremely well educated little town in the woodsy foothills of the Smoky Mountains. But this scientific community is under threat from one of the very subjects it studies.

This summer I interned at the Lab. My first week on the job, I got to follow my mentor to a meeting on how climate change would affect the Lab, and in turn, my own city, just a few miles past the guarded checkpoints I passed each morning. 

The National Climate Assessment: Southeast Region shows our skyrocketing average temperatures.

I tiptoed to the back of the room, eyes on a tense group of 15 or so leading scientists. They looked ready for the long haul—tankards of coffee were placed around the conference table. An excel spreadsheet was projected onto the wall and my boss typed "Areas of the Lab Affected by Climate Change." Everyone braced themselves and we were off. 

Almost immediately, I understood that these world-renowned scientists were aware, afraid, and preparing for climate change. This was no debate: lives were at stake, with tangible effects on the Lab and my city. They referenced the National Climate Assessment a lot, since part of its information was gathered at our lab. Page after page of repercussions were listed from our area's quickly warming climate: a change of 4-8 degrees Fahrenheit, drying rivers and lakes, higher risk of forest fires, and increasing extreme weather patterns, amongst others.

Surprisingly, their biggest fear was about our supercomputers, which are constantly providing info for a dozen or more projects—anything from alternative fuel efficiency projections to astrophysics to national security algorithms. Because of this, they overheat easily, and are kept in a very, very cold room in the middle of the campus. With climate change, it's going to take much more effort to keep that room as cool as it needs to be.

“What if the air conditioning breaks?”

Oak Ridge's rising temperatures will overheat the multimillion-dollar computers in a matter of minutes.

“What if they catch on fire?”

The closest river's water levels are already dropping.

Titan, the leading supercomputer at the Lab, takes up an entire room.

“Would there be enough water left to pump it over in time to save the majority of the computer?”

No one can say yet. If not, what are we left with? Dozens of extraordinarily important scientific pursuits would be set back years, maybe canceled permanently. Our supercomputing system is the only one of its kind. It’s common knowledge at the Lab that it runs programs for national security, too. What kind of hole would that put in our national safety? 

By the end of that two and half hour meeting, I was exhausted, jittery, and more than a little scared about what climate change was going to do. The stakes were higher here than I could even imagine. My town could be ravaged by forest fires. My house could be blown away by the ever-increasing tornadoes -- we had two this summer, which was unheard of in my hilly region. My lab, an essential part of our nation's scientific progress, was threatened by an unseen force that we are creating. The smell of stale coffee lingered in the air as I stayed long after the scientists left, thinking: why are we putting all this at risk?

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