Sci&Tech Writer James West delves into how a hefty investment could improve weather forecasting

I'm a 2nd-year maths student, with interests ranging from music to science with a bit of everything in between.

There is big news in the MET office this week, as the government has approved a £1.2 billion investment to build a new supercomputer in order to help with weather forecasting and climate change research. Once this is built, it is expected to be the world’s most powerful supercomputer and will allow the MET office to map the world in even more detail, making better weather predictions with greater accuracy than ever before.

The supercomputer predicts the weather by dividing the Earth’s surface into squares. These squares are normally around 10km across, but the UK has squares only 1,500m across. With the greater computing power available, it is hoped that the size of these squares will drop to around 100m, which means that scientists will be able to improve their weather forecasting skills considerably using greater detail. In each of these squares, data on lots of different variables including temperature, pressure, wind speed and humidity are recorded. This means when the model is put together, the MET office has a virtual atmosphere of the Earth.

It is expected to be the world’s most powerful supercomputer

This is coming at a particularly urgent time. With the rise of climate change creating more powerful storms, it is now critical that the MET office forecasting gets better. Both recent storms, Ciara and Dennis were predicted in advance, which allowed for preparation against them.

There is also an economic incentive to predict the weather more accurately; as not only will the public benefit from this, it can be used by energy companies to avoid and diminish the risk of potential blackouts and also in the aviation industry to ensure better safety and service. Meanwhile, better forecasting can be used to model the effects of climate change on the UK, and work out which techniques are most effective at combating it, for example the effects of the UK being carbon neutral by 2050. 

There are plans for this supercomputer to be operational by 2022. When it comes online, it will be six times more powerful than the previous supercomputer that the government uses, and then in 2027 they will triple its performance again. This means instead of collecting 200 billion observations as it does today, the result will be closer to 14 trillion in 2022, a significant increase. One other interesting impact is that the MET office are trying to reduce the amount of electricity that the machine will use, so they are exploring setting up the computer in a country like Iceland which generates all its energy from renewables, which would make this supercomputer the first by the MET office not to be housed in the UK.