The National Weather Service’s primary computer model trails competitors in Europe in overall forecasting accuracy. But today it announced upgrades to its supercomputers that hold great promise to improve its predictions.
By October this year, the capacity of the two National Weather Service (NWS) supercomputers will increase by nearly a factor of ten it said.
“By increasing our overall capacity, we’ll be able to process quadrillions of calculations per second that all feed into our forecasts and predictions,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service in a press release. “This boost in processing power is essential as we work to improve our numerical prediction models for more accurate and consistent forecasts required to build a Weather Ready Nation.”
The anticipated ramp-up in computing power results from a $44.5 million investment in high performance computer with IBM, $25 million of which was supplied by Congress following Superstorm Sandy.
These computing upgrades were originally scheduled to occur in 2014, but IBM – its contractor -sold its supercomputing services to Lenovo, a Chinese company. This raised red flags in Congress, according to reports, and put computer acquisitions on hold.
“In late January 2014, NWS was literally weeks away from executing a task order under its current contract with IBM that would have significantly increased its computing capacity and allowed the NWS to meet the goals communicated publicly in 2013,” said a NWS white paper published in November last year. “However, IBM’s decision to leave the x86 server business by selling the line to Lenovo caught NOAA, and everyone else, by surprise and prevented us from moving forward with this procurement.”
NWS was forced to start a procurement process from scratch early in 2014 and announced today that Cray Inc., headquartered in Seattle, WA, will serve as the subcontractor for IBM to provide the next round of computer upgrades.
“We are excited to provide NOAA’s National Weather Service with advanced supercomputing capabilities for running operational weather forecasts with greater detail and precision,” said Peter Ungaro, president and CEO of Cray in a press release. “This investment to increase their supercomputing capacity will allow the National Weather Service to both augment current capabilities and run more advanced models.”
These planned upgrades follow a three-fold boost in computing power in the works for later this month that will allow NWS to run an enhanced version of its Global Forecast System (GFS) model, with greater resolution deeper into the future.
This improvement follows a substantial upgrade to the NWS hurricane model (known as the HWRF), and the operational launch of a high resolution model for forecasting thunderstorms (known as the HRRR) in 2014.
Despite these investments, whether NWS will be able to catch up to European counterparts in an ongoing supercomputing arms race is an open question. The European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) and United Kingdom Met Office recently invested $64 million and $128 million, respectively, in computer upgrades (although a sizable chunk of UKMet Office investment is for climate modeling, rather than weather modeling).
“The US computer capacity will not surpass the European infrastructure without additional investment,” the November NWS white paper said.
I don't think it's just the weather geek in me that makes me think it's pretty obviously a great investment. Accurate weather predictions save thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. We take it for granted, but every improvement is worth a lot.