The UK's solution to violent storms? A billion-dollar supercomputer

The UK government has just splashed out £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) to build a supercomputer that can predict extreme weather with greater accuracy.

The UK government has revealed a £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) investment to build a brand-new weather-forecasting supercomputer – a timely announcement as the country battles against the wind and rain brought by Storms Ciara and Dennis.

The new supercomputer will be managed by the Meteorological Office (Met Office) to predict storms more accurately, guide the deployment of flood defences and simulate the consequences of climate change. The government expects the technology to be the world's most advanced supercomputer dedicated to weather and climate, although it did not specify which device it will be purchasing.

The Met Office currently uses the Cray XC40 supercomputer to process 215 billion weather observations from around the world every day. The data feeds into an atmospheric model that contains more than a million lines of code and produces an hourly weather prediction for the UK.

Cray XC40 will be replaced by the government's latest acquisition in 2022, and the new installation will run for ten years. The supercomputer is expected to give the Met Office's current computing capacity a six-fold boost in the first six years, with a further three-fold increase coming in the remaining four years. 

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

"Come rain or shine, our significant investment for a new supercomputer will further speed up weather predictions, helping people be more prepared for weather disruption from planning travel journeys to deploying flood defences," said business and energy secretary Alok Sharma.

While the Cray XC40 is already doing a good job of predicting large-scale events – Storm Dennis, for instance, was forecast five days in advance – the Met Office is hoping that its successor will improve local forecasts, among other things. 

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP), which assesses how the country's climate will change during the 21st century, already provides local predictions on extremes of temperature and rainfall with a resolution of 2.2 km (1.3 miles). Enhanced computing power, said the government, will help further inform future risk assessments and local decision-making to tackle climate change in the coming decades.

The £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) investment is the largest in the history of the Met Office. The new supercomputer comes with a much bigger price tag than the Cray XC40, which cost £97 million ($126 million).

In comparison, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) recently upgraded its own supercomputer – also a Cray XC40 – at a cost €80 million ($89 million) over four years. The ECMWF's new device, a BullSequana XH2000, is expected to quintuple the organisation's computing power. That's a smaller boost than the one announced by the UK government, but it's much cheaper. 

While the UK's new supercomputer promises to deliver value for money in the future, the country also needs funds to tackle more immediate weather challenges.

Last May, the UK's environment agency chair Emma Howard Boyd launched a new strategy to tackle flooding and coastal change, and estimated that an average of £1 billion ($1.3 billion) will be needed to be invested each year in flood and coastal defence. That's twice as much as the sum spent by the government on tackling extreme weather conditions since 2015, which amounted to a total of £2.5 billion ($3.25 billion). 

SEE: We are still playing catch up with AI, and it's a dangerous game to play

Howard Boyd's report also showed that two-thirds of properties in England are served by infrastructure in areas at risk of flooding, and that over 5 million people in the country are at risk from flooding and coastal erosion.

John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), said at the time: "It's essential that the government's national infrastructure strategy adopts our recommendation and backs this up with a robust and effective plan for funding and delivery."

The statement has particular resonance this week, as the UK confronts the 200 flood warnings triggered by Storm Dennis, which in places brought a month's worth of rain in 48 hours. That's just a week after the country was battered with Storm Ciara, which left more than 500,000 people without power.

Environment secretary George Eustice has said that the government can't protect every home, but is stepping up spending and has allocated £4 billion ($5.2 billion) to tackle extreme weather conditions in the next five years.