In Depth

Will Met Office supercomputer finally end UK’s weather chaos?

New forecasting project will cost £1.2bn of public money

Met Office weather forecasters will spend £1.2bn of public money on a new supercomputer, the biggest investment in the organisation’s 170-year history.

The billion-plus cost will cover the supercomputer’s hardware and its running costs over a ten-year period.

The government has calculated that for every pound invested, the economic benefit should be £19.

How does it work?

The Met Office is already using 200 billion observations from satellites, weather stations and buoys out in the ocean every day. That number is set to increase with the arrival of the new supercomputer.

The machine will handle more data at quicker speeds, and will run it through simulations of the atmosphere more accurately, says the BBC.

It will run a “digital twin” of the Earth’s atmosphere, a highly detailed model of everything happening on and around our planet, from winds to temperatures to pressures.

The simulation divides the model into grid squares. The current Met Office computer sections the Earth into squares that are 10km across, and just 1,500m across in the UK.

In London, the squares are 300m across, to improve the accuracy of forecasts for the airspace above the main airports.

The new supercomputer is set to divide the entire UK into squares of 100m, giving much more accurate local results.

The computer will need a massive supply of electricity, and the Met Office is inviting the potential providers to produce low-carbon options.–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world – and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda – try The Week magazine. Start your trial subscription today –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What will change?

The first-stage installation will see the supercomputer able to process data six times more capably than the one used now.

And five years after that, there’ll be a major upgrade to increase performance by a further three times. And better handling of data will lead to better forecasts.

“We’ll be streets ahead of anybody else,” says Penny Endersby, chief executive of the Met Office.

“Ultimately it’ll make a difference to every individual, every government department, every industry as people see forecasts becoming steadily better.”

Met Office forecasting is in demand by everyone from the military, to power companies, to organisers of big outdoor events.

It could help the National Grid better balance fluctuations in wind and solar power as the UK transitions to more renewable energy sources.

Professor Ted Shepherd, professor of climate science at the University of Reading, said the new computer would be a “step-change in weather forecasting and climate-modelling capability for the UK”.

Will it help with future weather chaos?

The hope is that improved weather forecasting could inform the Environment Agency’s efforts in deploying mobile flood barriers.

More sophisticated rainfall predictions and accurate forecasting will help local authorities and communities to be better prepared for storms and flooding, says The Times.

Existing improvements in weather forecasting mean a five-day forecast is now as accurate as a one-day forecast was 40 years ago. Whether the new supercomputer can replicate that success is yet to be seen.

“I won’t hang my hat on getting another day in the next decade,” says Endersby. “But it will make our forecasts more accurate, more timely and more localised.”

Its digitally simulated atmosphere will also be able to help with climate change, by exploring the effects of a hotter planet.

Researchers will be able to add more detail to their projections and explore the impact of using land differently, such as planting more trees.

“This investment will ultimately provide earlier, more accurate warning of severe weather, the information needed to build a more resilient world in a changing climate and help support the transition to a low-carbon economy across the UK,” said Endersby.

The start date for the new machine will be sometime in late 2022.


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