How supercomputers are improving weather forecasting - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

How supercomputers are improving weather forecasting

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Andy Nash has been with the National Weather Service for a long time.

"Thinking back for the past 20 years what I've seen for changes, it's night and day," he said.

Changes like computer upgrades are making forecasts better. Still, predicting how the atmosphere behaves is no small feat. Forecasters rely on weather models programmed with complicated equations to make their predictions.

"It's the most complex math that can be done," Nash said. "That's why we need supercomputers to do it."

The National Weather Service recently upgraded their supercomputers. They pound through 213 trillion calculations per second; that's 200,000 times faster than an iPad. And they have more than 2,000 terabytes of storage, enough to house 2 billion pictures, half a million movies, or 3.4 million hours of music. The impressive computing power is being used to upgrade weather models. One of the models has already improved tropical forecasting by 15 percent.

"Instead of maybe three days out knowing where Irene was gonna go, maybe it's three-and-a-half to four days," Nash said.

It's precious lead time like this that can save lives.

By 2015, another round of upgrades could make the supercomputers 20 times faster.

"A twentyfold increase is like going from a little desk calculator to an iPad," Nash said.

Locally speaking, this may translate into a better forecast.

"Here in Vermont the mountains make the weather, especially in the winter," Nash said.

So, a high model resolution is important.

"We really need to have a model that is able to pinpoint every mile or two," Nash said.

And the upgraded supercomputers could help us accomplish this goal.

Some folks feel that the resources required to upgrade the supercomputers are worth it.

"Yes, especially for poor or bad weather. I mean up here you get the big snowstorms and stuff, so it would be a big deal," said Paul Gaynor of Waltham, Mass.

Others are not so enthusiastic.

But Nash believes that supercomputers will ultimately help keep the public safe during severe weather.

"We always want to strive to be better," he said.

A sentiment that could soon be realized through supercomputers.

The National Weather Service leases the supercomputers for $19 million per year.

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