July 29, 2021

The EU bets on a supercomputer that anticipates natural catastrophes | Technology

The EU bets on a supercomputer that anticipates natural catastrophes | Technology


There is hardly any trace of what was an old tobacco factory outside of Bologna years ago: only several abandoned pavilions with walls full of graffiti. But in a few months, these facilities will be completely transformed and will house one of the largest supercomputers in the world, as explained to EL PAÍS by the European Center for Meteorological Forecasts for the Medium Term (ECMWF, for its acronym in English). The new data center, located in the Tecnopolo of Bologna, will allow this organization to improve the weather forecast and anticipate extreme weather events.

"Every time we will have more floods, heat waves and environmental challenges. We can not control time but we can anticipate what will happen to be prepared and be able to save lives or avoid material damage ", said the Director General of ECMWF on Tuesday at the presentation of the project in Bologna. Florence Rabier. Currently, the agency makes weather forecasts of up to eight days with 80% accuracy: "After that the percentage drops, but the predictions can be useful up to two weeks."

As technology progresses, the accuracy of predictions also advances. "Our forecasting capacity improves by one day every 10 years, it's a slow but important progress," he explained. With the new supercomputer, it is intended that by 2025 predictions of up to two weeks can be made with a high degree of precision. However, Rabier has acknowledged that there will always be limitations when it comes to making these forecasts because "the atmosphere is quite chaotic": "We can not know 100% or what time it is going to do today".

Recreation of the supercomputer to be installed in Bologna.
Recreation of the supercomputer to be installed in Bologna.

The ECMWF plans to choose who will design the new device by the end of 2019 to be manufactured and operational before the end of 2020. Nyal Farrell, Director of the program and administration of ECMWF, explained that there are about seven possible manufacturers, including Fujitsu, IBM, HP or Cray, and that it is expected to invest about 18 million euros a year in the project. Although we still do not know how the new supercomputer will be physically or what exact power it will have, the Copernicus services director, Juan Garcés de Marcilla, maintains that "it is going to double the global computing capacity of the current one".

During the last four years, the agency has used to make its predictions a supercomputer located in Reading (United Kingdom). But that center, in which 350 people work, has become too small. The new facilities will have an area of ​​more than 100,000 square meters, as has been assured Nyal Farrell, Director of the program and administration of the European Center for Medium-term Meteorological Forecasts.

Technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, and with it, the capabilities of these supercomputers. Farrel makes a comparison between the Cray-1A, designed in the 1970s, with one of the most recent models, the CRAY XC40: "The latter has a memory 118 million times greater, a maximum capacity of performance 53 million times greater and a space on the disk 8.6 million times greater. "

Garcés explained to EL PAÍS that "these supercomputers have a limited life because technologies evolve very fast. Every 4 or 5 years you have a new one. " Once the new device is installed in Bologna, both devices will be worked in parallel to ensure that the new supercomputer works well: "Then we transfer the operational part here and the one in England will be disconnected".

40 million observations of satellites

The ECMWF, which originated in 1975, makes a global weather forecast and sends it to the 22 member states of the organization and to the 12 cooperators. "For the first two days, the national meteorological services usually have their own forecast system, but after day three they depend on us for the global forecast," says Rabier at the new center's facilities in Bologna on a trip that was guest EL PAÍS. 95% of the data analyzed comes from satellites: "Every day we collect 40 million observations from satellites around the world and the supercomputer processes them with a model".

The data provided by the ECMWF is useful for national meteorological services, governments and even private companies, according to Rabier: "Many of the things that happen in the world depend on meteorology: agriculture, transport, renewable energy. .. Our data serve for example so that an airplane can find the best route in which to spend less fuel ".

Climate change, one of the greatest challenges for humanity

Recreation of the next European Center for Meteorological Forecasts in Bologna.
Recreation of the next European Center for Meteorological Forecasts in Bologna.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, according to the experts of the European Center for Medium-term Meteorological Forecasts. With the aim of improving the management of the environment and mitigating the effects of climate change, the ECMWF and the European Union promote the Copernicus project, which will also use the new supercomputer for its computations. "We offer society, companies and governments the information they need to adapt and take action," says Garcés. The project director explains that they analyze how the climate has evolved in the last 100 years, at what point it is now and how it can evolve on different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions. "The most pessimistic forecasts suggest that, if no action is taken, there will be an average temperature increase of six degrees by the end of the century, increases in sea levels of several meters and more extreme weather events such as droughts, heat or floods, "he says.

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