Met Office needs 10-year supercomputer plan, but no clouds

With the UK set for the worst drought since 1976, the Met Office needs a 10-year supercomputer plan, says the Science and Technology committee

With the UK set for the worst drought since 1976, the Science and Technology Committee is recommending the Met Office develop a 10-year plan for supercomputing capacity.

In 2009, the Met Office signed a five-year contract to deliver supercomputing capacity to improve weather forecasting. At the time, it was the second fastest supercomputer in the UK, and was expected to attain a 30-fold increase in speed to 1 petaflop during 2011.

In the report, the Met Office said: “Enhanced supercomputing power would probably have allowed more confident warnings, better indications of possible peak rainfall intensities, and longer lead time information on the potential risk to be issued.”

Data-intensive calculations

Illustrating the need for greater supercomputer capacity, the report noted that each day the Met Office receives and uses approximately half a million observations. This includes data on temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction and humidity. This data is collected and used to build complex mathematical models for forecasting. 

“Forecasting involves making billions of mathematical calculations; therefore powerful supercomputers are required to carry out these calculations as quickly as possible,” said the Science and Technology Committee.

The report stated that it would be possible to deliver more accurate forecasts if greater computer capacity were available. "It is of great concern to us that these scientific advances in weather forecasting and the associated public benefits (particularly in regard to severe weather warnings) are ready and waiting, but are being held back by insufficient supercomputing capacity. We consider that a step-change in supercomputing capacity is required in the UK and the government should finalise the business case for further investment in supercomputing capacity soon.”

Drawing evidence from government chief scientific adviser, professor Sir John Beddington, the report stated: “A step-change increase in supercomputing capacity [...] would be required to most effectively meet the government’s key evidence and advice needs.” However, this improvement in supercomputing capacity would require a four-fold increase in cost.

Cloud forecasting

While commercial organisations are turning to grid computing in the cloud to deliver low-cost supercomputing capacity on-demand, the Met Office stated that cloud computing was not sufficient for its needs. However, Beddington stated that “in a limited number of instances, grid or network computing may offer a viable and cost-effective approach, such as for low-resolution ensembles”.

The Science and Technology Committee is recommending that the Met Office work with the research councils and other partners in the UK and abroad to develop a 10-year strategy for supercomputing resources in weather and climate. 

“This should include an assessment of which areas in weather and climate research and forecasting might benefit from low-cost options to enhance supercomputing capacity,” the report stated.

Read more on Chips and processor hardware