Met Office supercomputer to increase weather forecast accuracy

Met Office buys £97m Cray supercomputer to help predict disruptive weather events with a far greater degree of accuracy

The Met Office is to invest £97m in a new supercomputer to provide more frequent, accurate and detailed weather forecasts for the UK.

Its new Cray XC40 system weighs in at 140 tonnes and can perform more than 16,000 trillion calculations per second, making it 13 times more powerful than the Met Office’s current IBM-based system. It also has more than 120,000 times more memory than a high-end smartphone.

The Met Office had previously spent £30m on four IBM supercomputers in 2009, capable of 125 trillion calculations per second.

However it came in for criticism when it emerged the system produced 12,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per annum, making the Met Office one of the worst polluters in the UK.

Its latest investment forms part of a 10-year drive to increase the Met Office’s computing capacity, after the Science and Technology Committee expressed its concern that advances in weather forecasting and the public benefits were still being held back by a lack of power.

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Although weather forecasting is already dependent on high-performance computing, the drive for greater accuracy and more localised information means more data is being produced, and more computing power is needed to analyse it.

The supercomputer will enable the Met Office to do just that, producing forecast updates every hour in greater detail for more precise geographic areas – something it has until now lacked the capacity to do. The production of higher-resolution models could help airports better manage landings and take-offs during heavy fog, for example.

Besides more in-depth, detailed forecasts, Met Office scientists also plan to use the supercomputer to improve long-range forecasting.

With climate change already impacting the weather, severe events such as the storms and extensive flooding experienced in the UK in the winter of 2013 will become more common in the future. The Met Office will use the supercomputer to assess the regional impacts of disruptive climate change-related events.

The government claimed it could deliver £2bn of socio-economic benefits to the country by enabling local authorities to better prepare and mitigate the impact of extreme weather events.

The new supercomputer, together with improved observations, science and modelling, will deliver better forecasts and advice to support UK business, the public and government

Rob Varley, Met Office

Chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander said the investment would help the UK maintain its natural lead in the development of weather forecasting technology.

"This £97m investment is a crucial part of the government's wider drive to make the UK the best place in the world to do science and research. By bringing world-class technology to the south west, we are also boosting regional investment and expertise, creating a stronger economy and fairer society,” he said.

Met Office chief exec Rob Varley said the investment will help to make the UK more resilient to high-impact weather and other environmental risks. 

“The new supercomputer, together with improved observations, science and modelling, will deliver better forecasts and advice to support UK business, the public and the government,” he said.

The supercomputer will be split between the Met Office’s new Exeter headquarters and at a purpose-built facility at the nearby Exeter Science Park. Varley said the Met Office would also be exploring greater collaborations with science, research and business partners both in south-west England and from elsewhere in the UK.

Exeter Science Park’s Gerry Shattock said Exeter has real strength in complex data sets and climate change adaptation.

“We will seek to build an open innovation community on the Exeter Science Park for a range of organisations of different sizes and from anywhere in the world. We believe this will fuel enterprise and, ultimately, create new business opportunities in the wider area,” he said.

The first phase of the supercomputer will go live in September 2015, reaching full strength in 2017.

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