Sunny spells ahead: Funding confirmed for £97m Met Office supercomputer


Obsession with weather is a famously British trait.

Oscar Wilde branded the national compulsion “the last refuge of the unimaginative”, but there are solid reasons why Brits remain enthralled by what the skies deliver.

Our island sits at the confluence of major global weather systems including the Gulf Stream, Arctic freezes and the effects of continental Europe. This makes for a particularly broad range of possible weather, combined with tempestuous changeability.

But our ability to understand and predict the weather is set to be bolstered as the government has confirmed funding for a high-tech supercomputer for the Met Office.

The £97m project will significantly improve existing forecasting and climate modelling capabilities.

The computer will weigh a staggering 140 tonnes and is set to be built across two sites in Exeter, where it will become operational as early as September 2015.

The system will be 13 times faster than the existing facilities, will have greater local accuracy, and forecast models will run every hour instead of every three hours.

This means that areas sensitive to changes in weather, such as airports, could be given more notice and greater accuracy for incoming weather patterns. For major airports, forecasts of high wind speeds, snow, and fog could be given at an accuracy of down to 300m.

Snow Heathrow British airways airport 2012

Snow at Heathrow in 2012

Met Office chief executive Rob Varley said he was “absolutely delighted” that the government had confirmed the funding.

“It will allow us to add more precision, more detail, more accuracy to our forecasts on all time scales for tomorrow, for the next day, next week, next month and even the next century,” the BBC reports.

The computer will also be a major aid to scientists studying the impact of climate change. Vast amounts of data are required to create long-term forecast models.

The computer “will answer the real questions people need to know”, Varley said.

“We can tell you that the global average temperature is going to increase by 3C or 4C if we carry on as we are – but the critical question is what is that going to mean for London?

“What is it going to mean for Scotland? What is it going to mean for my back garden? At the moment the general looks that we can produce really don’t answer those kinds of questions,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

When the supercomputer reaches its full capacity in 2017, it will then be processing power at 16 petaflops, meaning it can undertake 16,000 trillion calculations every second.

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