With two major storms creating havoc in many parts of the UK over the last two weekends, the significance of being able to predict severe weather is clearly apparent. In a timely announcement, the UK government today confirmed a £1.2B (around US$1.56B) investment over the next 10 years for developing state-of-the-art supercomputers to improve severe weather and climate forecasting.

Nic Bellingham Met Office
Nic Bellingham, Met Office

In a telephone briefing with EE Times, Nic Bellingham, supercomputing technology lead at the Met Office, the UK’s national meteorological service, said, “We are looking to replace the current three supercomputers (a system comprising three Cray XC40s), which collectively have 460,000 compute cores, with a supercomputer having six times the performance.”

This needs to be completed and operational in 2022. “Our current supercomputer has an end of life in September 2022, so the new one has to be in operation prior to that, since it is a critical part of our operation.” She said they are not laying down a specification or architectural requirements, only that it needs to achieve the performance improvement requirements.

We asked if there is any connection or involvement with European Union high-performance computing initiatives, such as Euro HPC. Bellingham confirmed that the Met Office is not involved the Euro HPC program.

She added, “Bids will be welcome from anyone, though there is a requirement that 50% of the development has to be in the UK.” With regard to energy efficiency, which was a focus at the recent HiPEAC conference in Bologna, Italy, she also commented, “The Met Office has a long-standing commitment to environmental responsibility and recognizes the impact of supercomputing on the environment. The Met Office will work with potential data center suppliers to ensure they are able to meet the high expectations regarding energy efficiency and ensure whole life sustainability is considered.”

The second phase of the £1.2B supercomputer investment announced today is expected to be completed by 2032 and would look to deliver at least a further three times increase in supercomputing capacity. The expected contractual value for the supercomputing capability throughout the 10 year period is £854M. Other costs include investment in the observations network, exploiting the capabilities of the supercomputer and the program office costs.

Met Office supercomputer-benefits infographic

Some of the objectives for the new Met Office Supercomputer, the first phase of which aims to be operational in 2022 (Infographic: Met Office)

According the to the British government’s press release, the new supercomputer, to be managed by the Met Office, will also be used to help ensure communities can be better prepared for weather disruption. This includes more sophisticated rainfall predictions, helping to rapidly deploy mobile flood defenses; better forecasting at airports so they can plan for potential disruption; and more detailed information for the energy sector to help them mitigate against potential energy blackouts and surges. The supercomputer will also strengthen the UK’s supercomputing and data technology capabilities, driving innovation and skills across supercomputing, data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The improved processing power will deliver a step-change in weather forecasting and climate modelling capability for the UK, such as the further development of the earth systems model, which involves collaboration with the many UK research institute NERC (National Environment Research Council) funded research centers.