Changing nature of weather forecasting

21st November, 2014

You may have heard recently that the Met Office will next year take possession of a new £97million supercomputer that will significantly improve weather forecasting and climate modelling. This addition will be the tenth high performance computer the Met Office has had since 1959 and the data it generates will further advance weather forecasting - a process that has fascinated humans for millennia.

  • In 650BC the Babylonians used cloud patterns and astrology to predict the weather.
  • Written works by Aristotle in 340BC included early accounts of water evaporation, weather phenomena and earthquakes.
  • Around 300BC both Chinese and Indian astronomers developed their own methods of weather forecasting known as pattern recognition.

Many of these ancient forecasting methods relied on observed patterns of events - for example, it might be noted that fair weather traditionally follows a particular red sunset. These observations accumulated over many years and resulted in the creation of sayings, proverbs and folklores that would provide people with an indication of what the next day's weather may have in store.

Despite these informal observations, it was not until the invention of the electric telegraph in 1835 that the modern age of weather forecasting began. Up until that point the furthest a weather report could travel in a typical day was between 40 and 75 miles. The telegraph allowed scientists to instantaneously receive weather reports from much further afield, giving more time to alert people to oncoming storms and severe weather conditions.


In 1922 the idea of using dynamic equations to create weather forecasts was first put forward by English mathematician, Lewis Fry Richardson. He realised that by doing thousands of equations it was possible to model the dynamics of the atmosphere. This was however a pre-computer age and Richardson estimated that it would take 64,000 people to perform the necessary calculations to develop a forecast in time for it to be useful. His theory however went on to form the basis for weather forecasting as technologies advanced.

In the 1950's the Met Office hired a mathematician specifically trained in computational methods to work a new electrical desk calculator. By the end the decade this calculator has been replaced by their own computer and so began the first efforts to fulfil Richardson's dream.

  • In 1959 the Met Office purchased its first supercomputer - the Ferranti Mercury - capable of carrying out 30,000 calculations per second.
  • In 1965 this was replaced with the English Electric KDF9, capable of 50,000 calculations per second.
  • This was replaced just 7 years later by the IBM System/360 195; a system capable of carrying out 4 million calculations in a second.

As technologies have advanced and calculations become ever more complex, the Met Office has chosen to upgrade every 5-10 years to successively quicker computers. Today their IBM supercomputer can do more than a thousand trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) calculations per second.

Cray XC40

Next year's delivery, the Cray XC40 supercomputer, will operate 13 times faster than the Met Office's existing system and puts the standard computer that you and I have at home to shame.

  • At peak performance the computer will be capable of carrying out 3 million calculations per second for every man, woman and child on the planet - that's more than 23 thousand trillion calculations per second.
  • Weighing in at 140 tonnes the new system will weigh as much as 11 double decker buses.
  • The new system will have 480,000 cores generating more processing power than 100,000 PlayStation 4s.
  • It will have 2 million gigabytes of memory available to run calculations - the equivalent of 120,000 smartphones.
  • It will be able to store 17 million gigabytes of data; enough storage to accommodate 100 year's worth of HD movies.

Rob Varley, Chief Executive of the Met Office, believes that the new computer will help them to “answer the real questions people need to know”. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme Mr Varley added:

“We can tell you that the global average temperature is going to increase by 3C or 4C if we carry on as we are - but the critical question is what is that going to mean for London? What is it going to mean for Scotland? What is it going to mean for my back garden? At the moment the general looks that we can produce really don't answer those kinds of questions.”

As a business we rely heavily on the data we receive from the Met Office and Weatherquest to provide a fast, accurate and efficient service to our clients. The improved forecasting of weather science, climate science and environmental science that their new supercomputer will make possible can only help us to further improve the service we are able to offer.

If you would like to find out how our 24/7 forecasting service can help to protect your business from the threat of snow and ice this winter, do not hesitate to get in touch and speak to one of our team. You can also find out more about the Met Office's new supercomputer in the video below.

Weather forecaster

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