Climate scientists call for more computing power

Thursday 27th Oct 2011 by theWeather Club

A heavyweight group of meteorological and climate scientists have told the UK government that they lack the computer technology necessary to make the best use of available data when making weather forecasts. Prof Paul Hardaker, head of the Royal Meteorological Society, told MPs sitting on the Commons science committee that a lack of computing power is limiting the improvements the UK Met Office can make to the accuracy of its weather forecasts. He said more supercomputers were needed to carry out complex calculations, but finding the money had become an issue. The science and technology committee is carrying out an inquiry into the use of science by the Met Office and the effectiveness of the body as a whole. The committee heard that scientists were increasingly able to gather the data necessary for very local predictions, and that while accurate seasonal forecasts for northerly latitudes like the UK's were difficult to achieve, progress could be made with investment. An investment, the scientists believe, would pay real dividends.

Prof Ed Hill, director of the National Oceanography Centre, said: "Users would be obviously from the insurance sector, the power generation industry, construction, agriculture, tourism, the retail industry - understanding which products to put on the shelves at any time - manufacturing and transport. The potential is enormous and particularly where large investments are at stake. Then, any information that can add some level of insight into what is going on is worth having."

However Prof Hill, Prof Hardaker and another witness Prof Alan Thorpe, the director general of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, agreed that a lack of supercomputers was a major problem. "We have fallen a long way behind the curve in terms of computer ability keeping pace with the science. There was a time when weather forecasting... in terms of the use of world's top computers, was high up on that list. It's actually slid further and further down... That change has prevented us advancing as quickly as we could have done," Prof Thorpe told the committee. "When we are starting to try to look into the whole earth system... the complications of that are such that we do really need to make a step change in current capabilities."

Prof Hardaker pointed that even in these tough financial times it might be unwise to forego vital investment. "I recognise there's an affordability issue and we have to make priorities," he told the MPs, "but it is a significant limitation in our capability at the moment." With the damaging economic effects adverse weather can have on the economy still fresh in mind from last winter, it is difficult to argue against the scientists views.