Faster Supercomputers Aiding Weather Forecasts

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 29, 2005

Increasingly powerful supercomputers are giving U.S. weather forecasters an edge on Mother Nature—though she still holds plenty of surprises in store.

"Thirty years ago people were delighted when we occasionally got a forecast correct," said James Hoke, who directs NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. "Now their expectations have risen. Clearly society is becoming more weather sensitive."

Enter the new generation of weather supercomputers, designed by IBM to help forecasters crunch an ocean of weather-related data.

The computer firm houses Blue, NOAA's primary forecasting computer system, at an IBM facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A backup system, White, is located at a NASA site in Fairmont, West Virginia.

The two machines rank as the world's 69th and 70th most powerful computers, according to the TOP500 List of Supercomputers.

"Those two machines are pretty impressive," said Jack Dongarra, computer science professor at the University of Tennessee, who compiles the TOP500 list with colleagues in Germany.

Satellites to Ocean Buoys

Hoke, the NOAA scientist, is a 30-year veteran of the weather forecasting business. He said, "To make a forecast for tomorrow, you have to have a current snapshot of what the atmosphere is like."

"These supercomputers are so powerful that we're able to take advantage of the huge amount of data that streams [in] around the clock."

Weather data arrives from an array of sources, including mountaintop observation stations, ocean buoys, and some 700 global weather balloons. Most wide-body aircraft in the United States even carry sampling instruments.

But satellites increasingly provide extensive coverage that can penetrate and monitor different layers of the atmosphere. The number of daily weather observations crunched by NOAA's supercomputers will soon top 200 million. NOAA uses the data to churn out some 200,000 different meteorological products every day.

Some of these "might just be a map with temperature or wind patterns. Others are [more sophisticated] regional and global models," said Gary Wohl of the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

Continued on Next Page >>


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