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Met Office gets £1.2bn climate-forecasting supercomputer

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A supercomputer intended to improve extreme weather and climate forecasting is to be given £1.2bn in UK government investment.

Complex simulations, such as cosmological or climate models, is extremely computationally expensive, typically requiring powerful supercomputers to run.

The Meteorological Office already has an impressive supercomputer called the Cray XC40 (among the 50 most powerful computers in the world) which comprises a pair of identical machines for running operational weather forecasts and a third system stored in a nearby data centre for providing R&D capabilities. This supercomputing system allows for detailed weather predictions to be made every hour instead of every three hours. The supercomputer, which began operations in 2016, is due to reach the end of its lifetime in 2022.

The Met Office will also manage the new supercomputer, which the government claims will be the world’s most advanced of its kind dedicated to climate and weather. The supercomputer itself is expected to cost £854m, with remaining funding going towards utilising the supercomputer, as well as supporting the programme offices and Observations Network between 2022 and 2032.

“This investment will ultimately provide earlier, more accurate warning of severe weather, the information needed to build a more resilient world in a changing climate and help support the transition to a low-carbon economy across the UK,” said Professor Penny Endersby, CEO of the Met Office. “It will help the UK to continue to lead the field in weather and climate science and services, working collaboratively to ensure that the benefits of our work help Government, the public and industry make better decisions to stay safe and thrive.”

The supercomputer will be dedicated to producing more sophisticated weather predictions, choosing the most appropriate locations for mobile flood defences, and predicting changes to the global climate. The government hopes that the technology will be able to better help communities, airports, and the energy sector prepare for extreme weather events, such as the recent storms Ciara and Dennis.

The government also announced a further £30m investment for other supercomputing services. The funding will go towards seven High Performance Computing services run by UK universities, and will support research into energy storage, therapeutic drug design, and ‘food fingerprinting’, among other areas.

“Over the last 30 years, new technologies have meant more accurate weather forecasting, with storms being predicted up to five days in advance […] 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 Alok Sharma, the recently-appointed Business Secretary and COP26 president.

“The new supercomputer will also strengthen the UK’s supercomputing and data technology capabilities, driving forward innovation and growing world-class skills across supercomputing, data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.”

The announcement comes amid criticism of the government for failing to take decisive leadership on climate change as it prepares to host the UN’s climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow later this year. At COP26, pressure will mount on world leaders to commit to decarbonisation in order to maintain global average temperature rises to within 2°C and avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. The sacked president of COP26, Clare O’Neill, has accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of admitting to her that he did not understand climate change, and having failed to convene a Cabinet subcommittee on climate change which he had promised.

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