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Why HPC Matters: Weather and Climate

High performance computing enables more accurate weather forecasting and climate modeling — and that could save lives.

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Whether the focus is a storm brewing over the ocean, a simple five-day local forecast or predictions about global warming, weather and climate are continually in the news. And there’s good reason for this. Weather and climate are universal concerns. They influence our lives in countless ways, from the decisions we make about how to dress for the day, to the steps we take to protect our health and safety — now and in the years to come.

It’s really not hyperbole to say that, when it comes to weather and climate, lives are on the line. With more timely and accurate weather forecasting and improved climate modeling, we can do the things we need to do to mitigate the threats to our wellbeing that come with catastrophic weather events, rising oceans and changing climates.

So, how do we achieve better weather forecasting and climate modeling? The answer lies at the intersection of the technologies we use to observe atmospheric conditions — from satellites above us to sensors on the ground — and the sophisticated computer models run by high performance computing (HPC) systems.

On the research front, this combination of technologies comes together at places like NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It is home to one of the world’s largest contingents of Earth scientists — really bright people who investigate weather and climate phenomena at time scales ranging from days to centuries. In the course of their work, these scientists rely heavily on HPC systems built to handle the massive datasets used in weather and climate modeling.

This is where the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) enters the picture. A service-driven organization, the NCCS works to expand scientific and engineering frontiers by providing state-of-the-art supercomputing and data services for weather and climate researchers. It serves a broad user community based at NASA centers and laboratories and universities across the country and elsewhere in the world.

The NCCS’s arsenal of supercomputing resources includes a system called ADAPT, for Advanced Data Analytics Platform. This HPC cluster, built with hundreds of repurposed Dell EMC™ PowerEdge™ C6100 servers, enables the large-scale data analysis that helps researchers gain a better understanding of really big questions — like how vulnerable or resilient ecosystems and society are to environmental change.

Of course, this is a story that extends far beyond government research labs. HPC systems are now used widely to help meteorologists and other scientists put satellite imagery and mountains of data to work to improve the accuracy of forecasts, simulate dangerous weather patterns and create better early warning systems for hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes and other catastrophic weather events.

There’s good news on this front: Our weather forecasts are getting steadily better and more trustworthy. That observation comes from ForecastWatch, a company that has been measuring the accuracy of consumer weather forecasts since 2005.

“The data overwhelmingly confirm what experts already know: weather forecasts are highly accurate, and are improving dramatically,” ForecastWatch noted in a 2017 report. [1] The primary driver behind the improvements can be boiled down to a single word: technology.

“Not only does technology make forecasts more accessible, it also makes forecasts more powerful and precise,” the firm reported. “New satellite, radar and ground-based sensors have made weather observations better than ever, with unprecedented density and resolution around the globe. The higher quality data combined with advanced computational platforms have enabled the proliferation of new and superior computer models to predict weather further into the future.”

The ability to predict weather accurately and further into the future will become even more important as our climate continues to change. Many studies have linked rising average temperatures and other climate changes to an increase in extreme weather events.

“Human-induced climate change has already increased the number and strength of some of these extreme events,” according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment report. [2] “Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts.”

Faced with threats like these, we clearly need more precise weather forecasting and better climate modeling — and HPC will be one of the keys to achieving these goals.

To learn more about the use of HPC systems at the NASA Center for Climate Simulation, read  NASA Center for Climate Simulation propels research science with a homegrown cluster based on repurposed servers.

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Making a difference with HPC

High performance computing touches virtually every aspect of our lives. HPC is making weather forecasts more accurate, cancer therapies more precise, fraud protection more foolproof and products more efficient. In this series of articles, we explore these and other use cases that capitalize on HPC and its convergence with data analytics to illustrate why HPC matters to all of us.

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[1] ForecastWatch, Analysis of High Temperature Forecast Accuracy of Consumer Weather Forecasts from 2005-2016,” September 2017.
[2] U.S. Global Change Research Program, "2014 National Climate Assessment

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