New supercomputer to aid weather research

Published 7:00 am Saturday, January 30, 2021

By Skip Rigney

If you will be writing a check to the Internal Revenue Service on or before April 15th this year, I have a suggestion that may alleviate at least some of your annoyance. As you sign the check, think of it as an upfront payment for better weather forecasts.

You may be under the mistaken impression that the forecast that you get from the app on your smartphone or hear on the radio or television is free. The reality is that those forecasts are accurate enough to be useful because taxpayers, primarily in the United States and in Europe, have provided hundreds of billions of dollars for meteorological research, data, and operations over the past seventy years.

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This week the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, one of the world’s leading earth science institutes, announced its award of a contract worth $35 million to the Hewlett-Packard Enterprise for a new supercomputer system. Funding is provided by the federal government’s National Science Foundation.

Models of the atmosphere and ocean that run on spectacularly large and incredibly fast computers are indispensable to weather forecasting and seasonal outlooks. These models are digital versions of the equations that describe the physics of the two fluids. Solutions are computed at points on a grid representing locations in the atmosphere, ocean, and on the land’s surface around the globe. Bigger and faster computers can solve the equations more accurately, in part, by using more grid points. They can also make longer forecasts.

The National Weather Service has four huge supercomputers on which it runs several models, including the Global Forecast System, or GFS. Last year the NWS awarded an eight-year contract to upgrade their supercomputers worth $500 million over that time period.

The European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) also has a supercomputer system on which it runs what is commonly referred to as the European model. ECMWF is currently spending $100 million for a new supercomputer at its data center in Italy.

The GFS and European models are run multiple times each day and are used, along with a number of other models, to produce the daily forecasts available from the National Weather Service and from private forecasting companies such as the Weather Channel and Accuweather. These and other computer models are essential tools for forecasting severe weather, including hurricanes.

However, the new 35 million-dollar computer that Hewlett-Packard will deliver to NCAR next year will not be used for time-critical public forecasts. Instead, scientists at NCAR and their colleagues at other institutions around the country and internationally will run models on the new supercomputer to better understand a wide range of phenomena, including severe weather, drought risk, the impact of sunspots, seismic activity, air quality, and wildfires. Some of that research will eventually contribute to better atmospheric models.

That may seem like a tall order for even a supercomputer, but Hewlett-Packard’s system should be up to the challenge.

It will be able to make 20 quadrillion calculations per second. That’s 20 followed by fifteen zeros.

According to NCAR, that’s “the equivalent of every man, woman, and child on the planet solving one equation every second for a month.”

If the prospect of better forecasts doesn’t make you feel better when you pay your taxes, at least be glad you don’t have to make a payment with that many zeros.