weather service map

Coping with weather may require a change of computer

A Seattle meteorologist suggests U.S. agencies are missing the chance to make more precise and useful weather predictions because of politics that limit its computing power to home-grown systems.

The National Weather Service, source of warnings about seasonal dangers ranging from the East Coast blizzards and California rain deluges of recent months to wildfires and hurricanes, committed almost a year ago to upgrade its computing equipment.

ibm servers

IBM server farm

But no new gear is in place. The problem? Apparently the National Weather Service (like some other U.S. agencies), committed to buy U.S.-made IBM hardware–and IBM is selling its server business to Lenovo. The Chinese company also bought IBM’s PC division ten years ago. So the weather service is still running its analysis programs on slower, older systems.

The upgrade remains on hold, a source of irritation to Cliff Mass, who teaches atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

Improved computing power at NWS would result in “saved lives, improved warnings, and  large economic benefits for the United States,” Mass writes in his Weather Blog.

He contends the inferior U.S. computing systems are responsible for some of the damage sustained during Superstorm Sandy and other recent weather-related disasters. Mass calls on Congress and the weather service to reconsider its commitment to IBM and go shopping for alternatives.

Cray XC30-AC Cray

U.S.-made Cray system

Mass complains that the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting surpasses the U.S. in computing power for weather forecasting–and, ironically, it's because that organization recently upgraded its system with equipment from U.S. supercomputer company Cray.

He also notes that “most cloud computing resources won't work because the nodes need to talk to each with very high bandwidth–like 40-gigabit-per-second or more. Most distributed nodes do not have such connectivity.”

Meanwhile, apparently the National Weather Service upgrades are stalled at a quandary: Buy IBM equipment, but don’t buy equipment from companies in other countries.

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