The UK's Met Office needs bigger and better supercomputers if it is to confidently and accurately predict the weather and give emergency services a longer lead time for extreme weather conditions, a government group said today.
The Science and Technology committee of MPs advised in a report on the Met Office that, despite the cost, the government had to consider further investment in supercomputing capacity to increase the weather-watchers' chances of getting it right.
"It is of great concern to us that scientific advances in weather forecasting and the associated public benefits (particular in regard to severe weather warnings) are ready and waiting but are being held back by insufficient supercomputing capacity," the MPs' report said.
"We echo the recent conclusions of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and others, that a step-change in supercomputing capacity is required."
The recommendation for more supercomputers for the Met has been made before, but has been held up by the government's request for a formal business case for the investment. UK.gov has suggested that it should take 18 months for this to be put together, but the MPs said it shouldn't "take anywhere near" this time.
"In our view, the government should finalise the business case in the next six months," they said.
The Met needs the massive processing space to work through billions of mathematical formulas that use data from thousands of observations, including temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, etc to predict the weather.
The weather office told the committee that supercomputers could help with extreme weather events, such as the localised floods in Dorset in August last year, which entailed the Fire Service having to deal with over 100 incidents in two hours.
If the Met had had the supercomputing power, it reckoned it could have known about the intense downpours further in advance, giving people more time to prepare for it.
The committee also noted that the Met didn't have the best record for accurately predicting the weather with the public, especially for seasonal forecasts, even though it's considered one of the top three weather centres in the world.
The National Oceanography Centre told the committee that the Met's bad rep was "largely due to sensationalist media reporting and shortcomings in how probability and risk were understood by non-experts".
The MPs want the Met to work harder at making sure that the people telling the public about the weather, usually broadcasters, give Brits a better idea of how certain or uncertain the forecast is.
"The Met Office should work closely with broadcasters, such as the BBC, to ensure that forecasts are communicated accurately. In particular, we are keen to see broadcasters make greater use of probabilistic information in their weather forecasts, as is done in the United States," the committee's report said. ®