YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) _ It's a machine so fast it performs more computations per second than there are stars in our galaxy. It's so large it's housed in a building the size of an aircraft hangar.
Running 35.6 trillion calculations per second, the Earth Simulator is the fastest supercomputer in the world, almost five times faster than the next best one and as fast as the top 5 U.S. supercomputers combined.
For the Japanese scientists using the $350 million computer, it means climate research, with its complex simulations and diverse mix of variables, is more accurate than ever before.
For the competition, however, it is a shrill wake-up call. Even the U.S. government admits its March activation signaled an end to American dominance of this high-profile field.
According to the Department of Energy, the Earth Simulator has put American scientists at a 10-100 fold disadvantage in weather studies. And there are much deeper implications.
``The U.S. has lost the lead in climate science research,'' it said in a June report. ``Since computational science contributes to DOE's energy and national security missions, the implications will be widespread and pontentially grave.''
For now, the Earth Simulator is being used to track global sea temperatures, rainfall and crustal movement to predict natural disasters over the next few centuries.
Tucked away in a suburban area just south of Tokyo, the computer's complex has almost 1,900 miles of cable _ enough to stretch from New York to Las Vegas _ roped together under its floors to keep its network running.
Thirty-five million cubic feet of air roar through the building every 10 seconds to keep the monster from overheating.
With its massive horsepower, the computer can model weather at 100 times the resolution of previous simulations, said Tetsuya Sato, director-general of the Earth Simulator Center.
Built by the Tokyo-based NEC Corp., the computer can already predict the path of a typhoon or a volcanic eruption with remarkable precision. Earthquakes are still tough to pinpoint and forecast, but likely epicenters are being identified and their damage mapped out to determine which dams, buildings and highways need reinforcing.
Plug in a 5-percent versus 15-percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions, scroll forward a few centuries and it can show which cities will be submerged as sea levels rise.
The Japanese government is betting the machine's hefty pricetag will more than pay off for the billions of dollars in damage it could help save in mitigating disasters on this quake and eruption-prone archipelago.
But other possibilities abound.
Researchers say a powerful computer like the Earth Simulator could also plot the course of a pandemic like AIDS, calculate the spread of a virus after a bioterrorist attack, speed the discovery of new drugs and save millions in research by simulating the interactions between a chemical and the human body.
``The government doesn't understand how valuable this is,'' Sato lamented.
The Earth Simulator's implications aren't being missed overseas, however.
``Every time there's an increase in factor of speed, you open up the possibility of a new science,'' explained Alan Edelman, professor of Applied Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science Laboratory.
Ironically, NEC used an old technology called vector processing to achieve the Earth Simulator's stunning performance. The technology had been largely abandoned by most U.S. manufacturers and supercomputer designers as outdated and too costly.
Spurred on by the challenge from Japan, the United States government is now pouring money into the technology race.
IBM Corp., flush with a $290 million government contract to build two new supercomputers, says it will regain the No. 1 title in 2004 with a 100-teraflop machine that would be nearly three times faster than Earth Simulator.
Seattle-based Cray Inc. has won a $90 million contract to build a supercomputer for nuclear weapons simulations at Sandia National Laboratory, also by 2004. And by 2010, it has taken on a government challenge to create a computer which will be measured in petaflops _ a mindboggling 1,000 trillion calculations per second.