Supercomputers Key To Improving Hurricane Predictions

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration puts two IBM supercomputers online, while a German scientific institute puts in an order for one of its own.
Scientists at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration are hoping two new supercomputers will help them make more accurate hurricane predictions so people have more warning and a better chance to get to safety before a storm hits.

The IBM supercomputers, one primary and one backup system, can handle 14 trillion calculations per second at maximum performance and ingest more than 240 million global weather observations per day, according to IBM. The new computers are expected to increase the administration's computational might for its weather forecasts by 320%.

"They're essential," says Dr. Stephen Lord, director of the environmental modeling center at the Washington, D.C.-based administration. "They're a little over three times faster than the old one. That means we can make the [forecast] models better and use up that 3x factor of computing to make a better forecast. We can make the models more accurate and run them over a longer period of time. We can do a five-day hurricane forecast now. In 1995, it was only three days. In the next five years, we can extend it a day or so and we'll be able to make it more accurate."

The announcement of the new supercomputers at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) comes just as IBM also announces that the Max Planck Society, a well-known science institution in Germany, has selected IBM to build it a supercomputer. That machine, which is expected to be completed in 2008, will be focused on investigating how the universe was formed, as well as the make up of nano worlds.

The Max Planck Society's "System p" supercomputer will be designed to hit a peak performance of more than 100 teraflops (100 trillion calculations per second), giving scientists there 20 times the application performance of the Society's current supercomputer, according to a release from IBM.

The computer manufacturer reports that the machine will use forthcoming IBM Power6 technology, a microprocessor that is expected to power the next generation of IBM eServer systems planned for this year.

"The new IBM supercomputer gives Max Planck scientists the ability to once again carry out competitive, state-of-the-art research in the field of numerical simulations," said Stefan Heinzel, in a written statement. Heinzel is director of the Garching Computing Center, where the new supercomputer will be set up.

The machine will, in part, aid scientists working on nanotechnology, as well as researching the material design and 3D pattern recognition in macromolecular systems.

A price for the system was not released.

Honing Forecasts

At the NOAA, a major piece of the forecasting puzzle is how much observation material can be squeezed into the computer, according to director Lord. The more information they can feed in, the more accurate the forecasts. And these new computers can take in more than any other they've used before.

"We're pretty excited," he says. "Every time we get an upgraded computer, it's happy time around here... This has been a really good week."

Lord notes that one-third of the U.S. economy is weather sensitive in some way. That means several trillion dollars are riding on weather forecasts that affect agriculture, tourism, offshore drilling and cargo ships bringing goods in and out of the country. The NOAA not only predicts storms moving across the country, but scientists there also predict ocean temperatures, wave height and current strength.

"The forecasts have gotten better," says Lord. "The computer is a key tool in making a more accurate forecast. If we didn't have this constant improvement in computing, we wouldn't be able to improve our forecasts... Think of the goods that come in on container ships. They come over the ocean and the ocean is sensitive to the weather. We have to predict the waves so shipping can be safe."

The supercomputers will harness 160 IBM System p575 servers, with 16 1.9 gigahertz Power5+ processors. They also will have 160 terabytes of IBM system storage DS4800 disk storage systems.

The supercomputers also are set up to process data from Constellation Observing System for Meteorology Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) satellites. These are a series of six satellites that were launched last year to provide National Weather Service forecasters with information about jet streams and storm systems.

This is the sixth year in a nine-year contract that the NOAA has with IBM. Lord says they spend about $26 million a year and that includes the cost of the new computers, along with tape drives, archiving devices and IBM system administrators.

This story was edited on February 9 to reflect the 2007 release date estimate for IBM's Power6 technology.