Street-by-street weather forecasts possible with £1.2bn Met Office supercomputer

Olivia Rudgard
·3 min read
Waves break on January 30, 2021 in Porthleven, England - Getty Images Europe /Cameron Smith 
Waves break on January 30, 2021 in Porthleven, England - Getty Images Europe /Cameron Smith

The Met Office will be able to give street-by-street weather forecasts with a £1.2bn Microsoft supercomputer that can pinpoint predictions to within 100m.

The UK's national weather service will launch the computer next year, with technology provided by Microsoft, and says it could eventually let people see how their weather will differ to their neighbours a day or two ahead.

Chief executive Penny Endersby said the super-accurate forecasts would initially be used to predict flooding, monitor storms and pinpoint buildings where people are vulnerable to high levels of heat, but it could eventually be rolled out more widely to the British public towards the end of the decade-long life of the computer.

The Met Office can currently model weather down to a 10km level over the whole planet, 1.5km in the UK and 300m in London.

"It will enable us to give ever-more accurate forecasts, and some of that will be around the ability to run models at a really fine level," she said. "We will start with big cities and the intention is to be able to relocate it anywhere in the world."

The Met Office provides data for the Foreign Office to help it respond to disasters abroad, and this technology is expected to improve predictions around the pathways of storms and other extreme weather.

"Coarser" predictions, which require less computing power, can be used to find areas of concern, with the computer then able to "zoom in" to make more accurate forecasts.

This accuracy will also be used by city planners to inform building design and plan green spaces and public transport infrastructure to minimise the impact of heat.

Based in the south of the UK, the new machine is expected to be the most advanced in the world dedicated to weather and climate and one of the top 25 supercomputers in the world.

More capability will be added over its lifetime, eventually building to 18 times current levels by 2028. It will be entirely powered by renewable energy, the Met Office said.

Professor Endersby said the computer would also pinpoint the location of future flooding, by mapping heavy rainfall alongside high tides, river levels and storm surges, allowing agencies to best position flood defences and give advance warning to those affected.

Currently the agency struggles most to map summer convective rainfall, intense storms which are predicted to become more common as the climate warms, so it is hoped that the more powerful computer will help with this.

Businesses including airports and renewable energy companies rely on detailed predictions to pinpoint the locations of fog and "wind droughts".

More accurate wind forecasts will allow airlines to manage takeoffs to take advantage of favourable conditions, improving fuel efficiency.

The speed of improvement in weather technology is often said by meteorologists to be "a day a decade", with a four-day forecast as good today as a three-day one was a decade ago. "This will definitely be taking us on that trajectory," Professor Endersby added.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the partnership was a "ringing endorsement for the UK's credentials in protecting our environment." "The new supercomputer, backed by a billion-pound UK Government investment, will act as a catalyst for unlocking new skills, technologies and jobs right across our economy - from data scientists to AI experts - all as part of our efforts to build back better and create a cleaner future.

Clare Barclay, chief executive of Microsoft UK, said: "The potential of the deep expertise, data gathering capacity and historical archive of the Met Office, combined with the sheer scale and power of supercomputing on Microsoft Azure will mean we can improve forecasting, help tackle climate change and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of climate science for decades to come."