£1.2 Billion Supercomputer for the Met Office

The UK Government announced a £1.2 billion investment for the Met Office to develop one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers dedicated to weather and climate. It will be bigger and faster than the Met Office’s current supercomputer, which provides forecast weather forecasts and data for a range of sectors from energy to aviation, as well as warn of extreme weather to help communities plan for and reduce the impact of climate change.

Climate forecasting isn’t just a booming business, it’s a vital service to help us predict what may happen to our environment over the coming years. However, to accurately predict the ever-changing climate we need to some seriously powerful computing, and this comes in the form of a supercomputer.

What is a Supercomputer?

Essentially, a supercomputer is a collection of CPUs, memory and storage all acting together in order to boost the effective processing performance of a computer.

A typical supercomputer may have several thousand CPUs, petabytes of memory and storage. While any individual processors may not be as powerful as a good desktop computer, it’s the combined computing power of these thousands of individual processors that allow a supercomputer to calculate vast numbers in as little time as possible.

With this huge amount of computing power behind companies and governments, we’re able to use a supercomputer to run through various models that would take a powerful desktop computer many years. Models such as creating the universe at the moment of the Big Bang, discovering cures for illnesses, finding out the secrets of the human genome, and, as in this case, predicting what may happen to our climate and environment over the next decade and beyond. The performance of a supercomputer is commonly measured in floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) instead of million instructions per second (MIPS).

The current fastest supercomputer in the world is the Summit, built for the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It’s made up of 2,282,544 IBM Power9 Cores and 2,090,880 Nvidia Volta GV100 cores, making it capable of up to 187.66 Petaflops.

Weather Prediction

This £1.2 billion investment to replace the current Met Office’s supercomputers will greatly help improve severe weather and climate forecasting. Elements such as better rainfall predictions will help the Environment Agency deploy flood defences, reducing the amount of damage caused. Airports will be able to use the data to better plan for disruption, and the energy sector can mitigate against potential energy blackouts and surges. Storms Ciara and Dennis were forecast several days in advance, enabling local councils and emergency services to better plan and prepare for the severe weather.

The Met Office currently employs three Cray XC40 Supercomputers, which:

  • Are capable of over 14,000 trillion arithmetic operations per second – that’s more than 2 million calculation per second for every man, woman and child on the planet.
  • Contain 2 petabytes of memory, enough to hold 200 trillion numbers.
  • Contain a total of 460,000 compute cores. These are faster versions of those found in a typical quad-core laptop.
  • Contain 24 petabytes of storage for saving data – enough to store over 100 years’ worth of HD movies

The new supercomputers proposed will be able to crunch these operations faster than the current Cray XC40’s. When predicting the weather, the globe is modelled and cut into squares. These have become smaller as the technology has advanced – and the smaller the better because that means more accuracy. Presently, the model of the Earth is divided up into a grid of squares that are 10km across; the UK’s squares are 1,500m across.

London is studied with the aid of smaller squares – 300m wide – mainly to improve the accuracy of forecasts for the airspace above the big airports. When the new supercomputer is up and running, it will be able to operate at an even sharper scale of 100m.

The Future

Over the coming years we will see how effective and impressive the Met Office’s new supercomputer will be. And as our climate rapidly changes, we’ll be able to keep up with it and hopefully save not only billions of pounds of damage, but also countless lives.

David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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