NOAA Announces Plan to Significantly Upgrade Supercomputing Capacity for Weather Modeling

Photo: NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced late last week that it will triple its operational weather and climate supercomputing capacity, and double its storage and interconnect speed, thanks to the installation of a pair of new Cray systems in Manassas, Virginia and Phoenix, Arizona in the next two years. The goal is to boost weather and climate forecast with more detailed, higher-resolution Earth models that will employ larger ensembles, advanced physics, and improved data assimilation, the NOAA said in a statement, and hopefully to improve forecasting reliability as compared to European models.

Why This Matters:  The National Weather Service’s dedicated forecasters and NOAA’s weather satellites provide a great service to the country in terms of reliable daily and weekly forecasts at bargain-basement prices.  But its forecasts are only as good as the supercomputers that run the models.  Tripling current capacity, these new petaflops (yep, that is what the additional capacity is measured in) will give the agency the opportunity to regain its standing as a world leader in global weather prediction. That NOAA admits is not the world leader in forecasting in its press release says all you need to know.  As was clear with the Sharpie-gate debacle, when there the global models predict different storm tracks it can lead to confusion — and even Presidential interference. 

Putting NOAA Back on Top of the World

“We are committed to put America back on top of international leadership with the best weather forecasts, powered by the fastest supercomputers and world-class weather models,” Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., acting NOAA administrator, said in the agency’s statement. According to, it is well-known among meteorologists that Europe’s weather prediction model historically produces some of the most accurate climate forecasts on Earth and also performs, on average, better than the American model. In 2012, for example, the European model more correctly predicted that “Superstorm” Sandy, a category 3 hurricane, would turn to hit—and eventually devastate—the United States’ East Coast and not remain at sea than the U.S. model, which took several more days to make the same forecast.  Those are critical days when it comes to storm preparation.    At the very least, this upgrade will keep NOAA’s supercomputing capacity on par with other leading weather forecast centers around the world.

This increase in computing capabilities “will triple the capacity and double the storage and interconnect speed,” and allow NOAA to offer “better forecast model guidance through higher-resolution and more comprehensive Earth-system models, using larger ensembles, advanced physics, and improved data assimilation,” the announcement said. The agency is also hoping through this computing upgrade to advance its Earth Prediction Innovation Center, or EPIC, which NOAA recently launched to strategically accelerate improvements across America’s climate and weather models. According to the agency, EPIC is a joint effort between public and private weather researchers to advance operational modeling skills by making it easier for developers to collaborate on improving the nation’s weather and climate models. This approach leverages combined skills and resources, and lowers barriers for interaction and shared ideas through the use of cloud computing and a community modeling approach called the Unified Forecast System.


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