Andrew Tarantola

NOAA triples its supercomputing capacity for improved storm modeling

Last year, hurricanes ravaged the southern and eastern coasts of the US at the cost of more than 160 lives and $70 billion in damage† Climate change is only going to make it worse. To quickly and accurately predict these increasingly severe weather patterns, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Tuesday that it has effectively tripled its supercomputing (and thus weather modeling) capacity by adding two high-performance computing (HPC) ) systems built by General Dynamics.

“This is a big day for NOAA and the state of weather forecasting,” Ken Graham, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, said in a press statement. “Researchers are developing new ensemble-based forecasting models at record speed, and now we have the computing power needed to make many of these substantial improvements to improve weather and climate forecasting.”

General Dynamics was awarded the $505 million contract back in 2020 and delivered the two computers, named Dogwood and Cactus, to their respective locations in Manassas, Virginia and Phoenix, Arizona. They are replacing some older Cray and IBM systems in Reston, Virginia and Orlando, Florida.

Each HPC operates at 12.1 petaflops, or, “a quadrillion calculations per second with 26 petabytes of storage,” Dave Michaud, director of Central Processing’s National Weather Service Office, said at a news conference Tuesday morning. That’s “three times the compute capacity and double the storage capacity compared to our previous systems…These systems are among the fastest in the world and are currently ranked number 49 and 50.” Combined with its other supercomputers in West Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Colorado, the NOAA has a capacity of a whopping 42 petaflops.

With this additional computing power, NOAA can create higher-resolution models with more realistic physics — and generate more with a higher degree of model certainty, Brian Gross, director of NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center, explained during the call. This should lead to more accurate forecasts and longer lead times for storm warnings.

“The new supercomputers will also enable significant upgrades of specific modeling systems in the coming years,” Gross said. “This includes a new hurricane forecasting model called the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System, which is expected to be commissioned at the start of the 2023 hurricane season,” and will replace the existing H4 model for hurricane weather research and forecasting.

While NOAA has not yet confirmed in absolute terms how much of an improvement the new supercomputers will bring to the agency’s weather modeling efforts, Ken Graham, the director of the National Weather Service, is confident of their value.

“To translate what these new supercomputers will mean for the average American,” he said at the press conference, “we are currently developing models that can provide additional lead time in severe weather outbreaks and more accurately track intensity predictions for hurricanes, both in the ocean when they are expected to come ashore, and we want longer lead times [before they do]†

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