Environment & Science

Your idle computer could help scientists study the drought

A buoy sits on dry cracked earth on a dry inlet of Shasta Lake on August 30, 2014 in Lakehead, California.
A buoy sits on dry cracked earth on a dry inlet of Shasta Lake on August 30, 2014 in Lakehead, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Your idle computer could help scientists run a program that'll shed light on the factors behind the drought.

The project, backed by climate researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Oxford, is hoping to tease out what role greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures play in creating dry spells like the one currently gripping California.

Over the last two years or so, scientists observed an unusually warm patch of water stretching from Mexico to Alaska. They've dubbed the phenomenon "the blob," and many believe it's related to the drought.

Climate change, brought on by green houses gases, could also be playing a role.

Oregon State climatologist Philip Mote is using a sophisticated simulated weather model to recreate the last 18 months of weather, and test out thousands of minor climate variations.

Each model will assess a different level of sea temperature and green houses gas — including the kind associated with the blob.

Once all the variations have been calculated, Mote and his team will be able to determine how much affect the factors had in producing drought conditions of the type we're seeing now.

“We are trying to role the dice thousands of times and see what the possible outcomes would have been from different configurations,” he explained.

This kind of work takes a lot of computing power though. That's why Mote is reaching out to the public for help.

"We enlist thousands of volunteers to run a few of these simulations each [...] We get some results and they get to see what the results are at the same time we do," he said.

You can download the program at climateprediction.net. Mote says it runs in the background when a computer isn't in use.

It will drain your battery, though; be sure your laptop is plugged in if you plan on participating.

Mote's hoping at least 1,000 volunteers to help out. If all goes well, he said the study will not only help scientists understand the current drought, it could also allow scientists to better predict future ones.