UK to spend $1.6B on world’s fastest weather forecasting supercomputer

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UK to spend $1.6B on a new weather forecasting supercomputer.
Image: Met Office

Supercomputers power the world’s most technologically-intense operations. Although the days of quantum computing are approaching quickly, supercomputers remain atop the list of the most powerful pieces of tech available today.

The U.K.’s national weather service, the Met Office, is about to spend $1.6 billion on the world’s fastest weather forecasting supercomputer. The ultra-powerful machine costs ten times more than the system currently in use but will deliver more accurate forecasts across the country. It will revolutionize the way that meteorologists are able to create local forecasts.

As of now, the agency hasn’t said what company it will partner with or which supercomputer it will be purchasing.

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Massive Overhaul

Every day, the Met Office collects more than 200 billion readings from a variety of satellites, land-based weather stations, and ocean buoys. Those are currently being processed by a $126 million supercomputer engineered by Cray that was acquired in 2014. Obviously, the new project’s $1.6 billion price tag dwarfs the current investment. The figure covers not only the supercomputer’s hardware but also the cost of running it for the first ten years of its lifespan.

A first-stage installation will likely take place in 2022. That alone will provide six times more computing power than the system being used today. However, a major upgrade five years after the initial installation will increase the supercomputer’s performance further by a factor of three.

The investment is now the largest in the history of the Met Office and will likely hold that title for some time. Appropriately, the agency believes that it will be beneficial for both citizens and businesses alike.

Chief executive of the Met Office, Penny Endersby, says, “Ultimately it’ll make a difference to every individual, every government department, every industry as people see forecasts becoming steadily better.”

Creating a Digital Twin

The technical side of creating weather forecasts is far more complex than most people assume. Hence the necessity for billion-dollar supercomputers. With its new hardware, the Met Office will create a “digital twin” of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Within this intricate model, it will be able to run simulations of nearly every variable from wind to temperatures and air pressure to nitrogen reactions. This will allow meteorologists to create up-to-date, targeted forecasts for areas as specific as 1,000 feet wide.

That sort of precise forecasting will provide airports with better data to plan flights, help emergency workers deploy flood barriers, and give everyday citizens a better look at the weather in their actual location.

Notably, the new supercomputer will do more than just weather forecasting. Universities will also be able to utilize portions of its power for AI testing, pharmaceutical design, and other types of complex research.

It’s also worth noting that the U.K. won’t make an exception to its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 for the supercomputer. Instead, it will work with a variety of providers to help power the system with clean energy. According to a BBC report, the Met Office is even open to housing the supercomputer in another country (like Norway or Iceland) if it will decrease its environmental impact.

Such decisions will be made in the days to come as the Met Office’s plan for its exciting new purchase is finalized. Regardless of where it ends up, the supercomputer will be a beneficial addition to the country’s weather forecasting.

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