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National Weather Service to improve forecasting with new supercomputers

Hurricanes and Tropical StormsNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationNational Weather Service

Tired of the local weather man (or woman) missing the weekend forecast? The data many forecasters use to predict the weather could soon be a lot better.

The National Weather Service has launched a pair of new supercomputers that could improve forecasting of weather patterns, hurricanes and other storms, much of which takes place at a new facility in College Park. The weather service's forecast data is free to the public and used widely even by independent meteorologists.

The new technology is able to process more weather data through models and at speeds more than twice as fast as previous computers, expected to result in more accurate forecasts further out in time. That includes an improved hurricane model, for potentially better predictions of storm track and intensity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA flipped the supercomputers on last Thursday, several days ahead of schedule, according to Computerworld. The machines are being leased to the government for $20 million a year.

The prime supercomputer is nicknamed “Tide” and located in Reston, Va., while its Orlando-based backup is named “Gyre”, according to NOAA. Both are capable of operating at 213 teraflops -- one teraflop equals 1 million million mathematical operations per second -- up from 90 teraflops with previous machines.

That means models can predict conditions on an increasingly local level, which makes forecasts more accurate at any given point, said Ben Kyger, director of operations at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Prediction. In forecasting parlance, it means improvement in what is known as the resolution of forecasts, Kyger said.

The supercomputers run about 20 prediction models, he said. They include models to predict global weather conditions, conditions specific to North America, ocean conditions, severe weather potential and hurricane development.

Hurricane forecasting models have shown up to a 15 percent improvement in both track and intensity predictions, compared with last year's version of the model. The model can also process data collected by NOAA hurricane hunters in real time as the aircraft fly through storms, something that is also expected to improve forecasts.

Much of the monitoring of weather hazards nationwide and across the oceans takes place at the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park.

The aim is to promote the weather service's mission of preparing a "weather-ready nation".

"It really all comes down to giving people more time to take action to not get hurt," Kyger said. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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