The computer upgrade brought on by the poor forecasts of Hurricane Sandy has finally been completed. (NOAA)

Every year, the nation’s meteorologists convene to discuss the weather and the status of weather science at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society. The meeting is also a time for big announcements, and in New Orleans this week the National Weather Service was able to announce to the meteorological community that it had successfully completed a long-awaited computing upgrade.

The system comprises two supercomputers — one of which will serve as backup — from IBM and Cray, located in Reston, Va., and Orlando. “They are now running at 2.89 petaflops each for a new total of 5.78 petaflops of operational computing capacity, up from 776 teraflops of processing power last year,” the Weather Service said in a press release.

The National Weather Service's new Cray, Inc., supercomputer. (NOAA) The National Weather Service’s new Cray, Inc., supercomputer. (NOAA)

In other words, it triples the computing power available for forecast generation, which in the end will lead to higher resolution and more accurate forecasts of everything from day-to-day weather to severe thunderstorms and hurricanes.

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The computers were a $44.5 million project motivated by a call for forecast improvement after Hurricane Sandy. The skill of the most reliable and trusted U.S. weather model, the GFS, was vaulted into the national media spotlight after the European model, or the ECMWF, correctly predicted Sandy’s devastating track toward the East Coast. The European model excels at storm track prediction because of its advanced data assimilation and high spatial resolution, which can only be run on the most powerful computers.

The European model’s success was no surprise to the meteorological community, but Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said Sandy served as a very tangible wake-up call for the leaders who control the Weather Service’s bottom line. The completion of the project, though over a year behind the initial schedule, advances NOAA’s computing capacity beyond that of the ECMWF.

“We had tremendous support from the administration to deal with the deficiencies that were well-known and very obvious to a lot of people,” Uccellini told The Washington Post. “We’ve had tremendous support on the hill both the House and the Senate — Democrat, Republican — they really wanted to support the Weather Service, the emergency management community and other users that have been very vocal.”

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The new system is a huge step forward for the American weather enterprise. Forecast models will gradually be rolled over to the new computers over the coming months, starting with the GFS, which will also be upgraded with a more advanced data assimilation technique. Version 2 of the HRRR is expected to be running on the new computer in time for severe weather season, and the next generation HWRF, which will be linked to a dynamic storm surge model, should be in place by June. The WRF river models, which currently forecast for 4,000 points across the United States, will be able to forecast for 2.7 million catchments and streams when it is added to the supercomputer in June or July.