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Everybody complains about the weather, and now somebody’s going to do something about it.
All joking aside, predicting the weather is serious business. From agriculture to shipping to the utility grid, knowing the forecast can be worth billions of dollars. And there’s the matter of saving lives ahead of storms and floods, a growing concern as climate change roils the atmosphere.
In the U.S., the responsibility falls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its National Weather Service. The service relies a handful of supercomputers called Venus, Mars, Luna and Surge to run the massive climate models that help predict the weather over the next 10 days and chart the path of major storms. Well, they certainly were supercomputers at the time they were installed. Luna and Surge were among the 50 fastest computers on the planet five years ago. But with advancements in chip design and system architecture, they’ve been surpassed and now barely rank in the top 350.
So it’s time for an upgrade. On Thursday, NOAA announced that it had selected two new supercomputers from Cray that can each perform 12 thousand million million floating-point operations per second. That’s the number 12 followed by 15 zeroes, for those of you counting at home. Or, as we say in the supercomputer game, 12 petaflops.
That will triple the agency’s computing capacity and be good enough to rank in the top 20 fastest in the world, though the new weather predictors will need about a year of testing before coming online from offices in Manassas, Virginia, and Phoenix, Arizona. Including supplies and services, NOAA is spending $505 million on an eight-year contract overseen by a unit of General Dynamics. It seems like pocket change given the stakes.
Atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass at the University of Washington has long been a critic of the weather service’s modeling and computing shortfalls. So I called the good professor yesterday to ask for his thoughts on the latest super-boost to NOAA’s supercomputers. While he says that the new computers are “extremely good news” and “a huge improvement that they need,” Mass still believes that the government needs to get better organized around its weather modeling efforts.
To that end, acting NOAA administrator Noah Jacobs has been working to establish the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, or EPIC. Next month, the agency will issue a request for proposals to get EPIC going. The scope and details of the request should reveal how serious the government is about state-of-the-art weather forecasting, Mass says.
In the meantime, keep an umbrella handy. And have a great weekend.