Unlocking Australia’s geographic time machine

Data on Australia’s landscape and climate has been collected for more than 100 years and this information can be used to inform national decisions about natural disasters, water, food, and resource management.

With a rapidly growing satellite base of growing capability, the volume of useful data becoming available is now overwhelming and existing computing installations lack the power to process such large datasets.

To address this need, the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) is helping make available essential data for future environmental decision making.

How does the National Computational Infrastructure Facility help?

The NCI — supported by the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) — is supporting research in this important area.

In 2013, Geoscience Australia and Lockheed-Martin, with funding from the Australian Government Space Research Office, created the Data Cube — a unique repository of Australia’s landscape and environmental data using the NCI’s Raijin supercomputer.

The Data Cube is a powerful new resource that captures in a usable form a huge volume of nationally significant data. It makes available for the first time more than three decades of land-surface images that show changes in vegetation, land use, water movements, and urban expansion. The images — which have been computationally corrected to take into account Australia’s land drift, and remove cloud cover and radiance variations — provide essential baseline data for future environmental policy and economic decision making. This is the first time internationally that an entire continent’s geographical and geophysical attributes have been made available to researchers and policy advisors.

Having the data all sitting on a spinning disk at a co-located supercomputer centre has been a game changer for Geoscience Australia. A recent whole-of-continent analysis of Australia’s water footprint examining the last 15 years of Landsat satellite data was able to be completed in two days at NCI. Using Geoscience Australia’s traditional scene-based processing approach, this job would have taken eight and a half years of elapsed time, and many people years of effort.

Results

The Data Cube houses 35 years of satellite imagery, at a resolution of 25 metres, and spans Australia’s total land area and has already been used to supply the Murray Darling Basin Authority with accurate information on the effect of decades of irrigation on water levels.

“NCI is no longer a research infrastructure facility that stands on its own; it has become integrated into Geoscience Australia’s business-as-usual model. The interplay between research computing and GA’s core business is of great importance in that it blends open access data with the power of a massive computer.”

Dr Clinton Foster, Chief Scientist, Geoscience Australia

Did you know?

  • The current NCI facilities are the seventh generation of supercomputing facilities operated from The Australian National University (ANU) since 1987, and the fourth generation of national facilities (2000 onwards).
  • Housed at ANU in a new, state-of-the-art Data Centre, NCI integrates Australia’s first petaflop supercomputer (the Fujitsu Raijin), Australia’s highest-performance cloud computing facility, and Australia’s fastest file systems.
  • NCI supports the full spectrum of Australian computational and data-intensive science. Prioritised support is provided for national water management research, earth system science, and environmental science.
  • NCI brings together a number of organisations in an unincorporated collaborative venture. ANU, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, a consortium of research-intensive universities supported by the Australian Research Council, Intersect Australia, the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation, and Deakin University all work together and share resources and knowledge.

The Australian Government is proud to provide funding for NCI’s important work through NCRIS.

You can find out more about NCI and about other NCRIS initiatives on their websites.