National Weather Service Getting Supercomputer Upgrade
May 17, 2013

National Weather Service Gets Boost From Big Blue

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

The weather remains one of those things in life that can´t actually be changed, but being able to predict and track weather is the next best thing. By being able to improve forecasting and storm tracking abilities are just two ways that the United States National Weather Service (NWS) can help better protect the country from severe weather.

The U.S. economy remains vulnerable to severe weather events, which can cost billions of dollars a year.

However, the Weather Services´ global and national weather prediction efforts have been somewhat hampered by aging technology and even a lack of computer power to support all of its day-to-day operations. Now the Weather Service could be getting a quantum leap that could give it the tools it needs.

The NWS had commissioned an IBM System Parallel supercomputer in January of 2000, and while that was once the world´s fastest computer for operational weather forecasting, that technology is hardly cutting edge today. While the United States has long been considered a pioneer in numerical weather prediction using computer models and mathematical simulations of the atmosphere, the NWS has lost its leadership in computer modeling in recent years, especially where medium-range projections are concerned.

Recently, the United States has trailed the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), especially when it comes to providing the most accurate global forecasting models. This is important as computer models often help meteorologists develop forecasts while simulating how weather conditions might develop based on an initial set of atmospheric and oceanic conditions.

While meteorologists with the Weather Service and the Miami-based National Hurricane Center did forecast the course of Sandy, the European forecasts predicted the storm´s “left hook,” which eventually put it on track to make landfall in New Jersey and New York, days ahead of the Weather Service.

However, the new updates to the IBM systems could give NWS more than 25 times its current computer power, and help the United States regain its top position.

The primary IBM machine at Reston, Virginia, as well as an auxiliary computer in Orlando, Florida, will be receiving upgrades. These were made possible through $25 million in funding from the “Hurricane Sandy supplemental bill,” which was recently approved by Congress.

“This is a game changer,” Louis Uccellini, the director of the National Weather Service told Reuters in an interview. Uccellini, who took over as director in February, added that this was “the biggest increase in operational capacity that we've ever had.”

Uccellini was previously the head of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, the Weather Service office that is now responsible for the computer models and global forecasts.

The technology could help with forecasting, which is especially important due to the increase in extreme weather, and this includes those millions of people who live in hurricane danger zones, including the Gulf of Mexico. It is this region that accounts for 20 percent of US oil production, 30 percent of natural gas processing and about 40 percent of the country´s refining capacity.

“Our goal is to exceed, to be second to none,” Uccellini told Reuters. Perhaps IBM can help make this goal come true.