“How two new supercomputers will improve weather forecasts”
MIT Technology Review, October 27, 2021
by Casey Crownhart
“Each of the upgrades by the US National Weather Service is the size of 10 refrigerators, has the capacity of 12.1 petaflops, and will help predict storms made worse by climate change.”
When Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Gulf Coast of Florida in October 2018, it was a category 5 storm, with wind speeds over 150 miles per hour. The US National Hurricane Center had initially predicted they would reach less than half that.
Michael went through a process called rapid intensification, where a hurricane develops massively higher wind speeds in a short time. And the experts didn’t see it coming.
Predicting the chaos that is the center of a hurricane, and understanding how storms strengthen, is still a challenge for forecasters. But armed with better models and more experience, they accurately predicted that Hurricane Ida, which hit New Orleans in September this year, would rapidly intensify, although the storm strengthened even more than they had expected.
Supercomputers have been part of these improvements in predicting where, when, and how storms might hit. And by the end of 2021, the US National Weather Service (NWS) will receive two brand-new supercomputers. It’s an upgrade they hope will continue the steady march toward more accurate forecasts, which will become even more essential as climate change continues to fuel more intense storms.
The agency will use the new machines in operational forecasting—the system that forecasters use to make predictions like the ones on the nightly news. Once the agency has fully vetted them, probably in July 2022, the new supercomputers should help meteorologists better predict everything from the chance of rain in Denver to the odds that a hurricane will hit Miami.
Each supercomputer (one in Virginia and one in Arizona, so there’s always a backup) is about the size of 10 refrigerators and has a capacity of 12.1 petaflops. “Flops” stands for “floating point operations per second,” so 12.1 petaflops means the supercomputers can make just over 12 quadrillion calculations every second. It’s a huge upgrade—nearly triple the size of the old system—and will cost roughly $300 million to $500 million over the next decade.
About the Author:
Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter at MIT Technology Review, focusing on renewable energy, transportation, and how technology can fight climate change. She has also worked as a freelance science and environmental journalist, writing for outlets like Popular Science and Atlas Obscura. Before journalism, she worked as a researcher in materials science.