Friday, November 03, 2017

Canada’s new weather supercomputers will improve forecasts and warnings

I had the absolute privilege of meeting the current President of the World Meteorological Organization and Assistant Deputy Minister for the Meteorological Service of Canada, David Grimes, in Dorval on Thursday. (Photo: Robert Frank)
Canada has moved to the forefront of weather computer modeling with the delivery of two High Performance Computers (HPC) from Shared Services Canada (SSC) and IBM. These high-performance computers were officially dedicated at a service at the Canadian Meteorological Centre in Dorval on Thursday, November 2. Minister of Public Service and Procurement, Carla Qualtrough was on hand for the unveiling. But, as a weather nerd, it was Assistant Deputy Minister for the Meteorological Service of Canada and current President of the World Meteorological Organization, David Grimes, who caught my attention. It was an absolute honour to talk to him about the new computers and weather in general. A video presentation of last weekend’s intense storm, as displayed by the new supercomputer modeling output, was beyond impressive. According to Grimes, these computers will make Canada, “one of the best modeling centers in the world”. “Our early-warning system has been greatly enhanced,” he added. The new HPC solution is the fastest recorded computer platform within the Government of Canada, and among the fastest in the world. 

The super computers will allow for complex weather programs and models, involving over 10 billion data points, to be processed much quicker. The end result for Canadians will be more accurate and timely forecasts and warnings. What was exciting for me to discover was that my Davis Vantage Vu weather station, in my backyard on L’Ile Perrot, is likely one of those data points. Information is pumped into these computers from all around the country and the world. Weather knows no boundaries. If you are processing weather data and uploading it to the web, it will likely be used in one calculation or another.

Computer weather modeling has become crucial in recent years.  It allows forecasters to input current weather data, along with additional information, variables and parameters, to basically map out how weather systems will move in both the short and long-term. According to Grimes, a typical model run can take around seven hours, but that will gradually be reduced over the next decade, down to almost real time within ten years.

The HPC is five times faster than the old Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) computers, processing data at an astonishing 2.444 trillion calculations per second. The HPC is primarily for ECCC weather predictions, but additional organizations will also benefit from this resource. Health Canada for air quality alerts, Fisheries and Oceans Canada to support ocean modeling and Public Safety Canada to support environmental emergency prevention – just to name a few. Today’s new supercomputers are 70 million times faster than Environment Canada’s first supercomputer purchased in 1974.

The new ECCC supercomputers were dedicated to; Kenneth Hare above, and Harriet Brooks below.
(ECCC Photo)
The new supercomputers were named for two late distinguished Canadian scientists: Harriet Brooks, Canada’s first female nuclear physicist, who worked with Marie Curie and contributed to research on radon gas, and Kenneth Hare, Canadian environmental science advocate, who warned about carbon-driven climate change long before many others were paying attention.

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