UK Announces £1.2 Billion Weather and Climate Supercomputer

By Oliver Peckham

February 19, 2020

While the planet is heating up, so is the race for global leadership in weather and climate computing. In a bombshell announcement, the UK government revealed plans for a £1.2 billion ($1.56 billion) investment in weather and climate supercomputing, including a new system which, when completed, is expected to stand as the world’s most powerful system dedicated to weather and climate operations. 

Of the £1.2 billion investment, the government expects to spend £854 million ($1.11 billion) on the contract for the supercomputer itself. The new system, which will be managed by the UK’s Met Office, will replace its existing supercomputing capabilities (three Cray XC40 systems that will reach end-of-life in 2022) from 2022 to 2032. The Met Office anticipates that just the first phase of the new system will sextuple its computing capacity, followed by an additional threefold increase in the back half of that ten-year period. 

The system will serve a wide range of functions, from more accurate storm and rainfall prediction to climate change modeling. The UK government also highlighted potential uses in energy forecasting and air traffic planning, as well as ensuing improvements in the UK’s HPC and data technology capabilities.

“This investment will ultimately provide earlier more accurate warning of severe weather, the information needed to build a more resilient world in a changing climate and help support the transition to a low carbon economy across the UK, said Penny Endersby, chief executive of the Met Office, in the UK government’s announcement. “It will help the UK to continue to lead the field in weather and climate science and services, working collaboratively to ensure that the benefits of our work help government, the public and industry make better decisions to stay safe and thrive.

The UK announced the new supercomputer through Alok Sharma, its business and energy secretary – and president of COP26, the next major conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will be held in Glasgow later this year. 

“Over the last 30 years, new technologies have meant more accurate weather forecasting, with storms being predicted up to 5 days in advance,” Sharma said. “Come rain or shine, our significant investment for a new supercomputer will further speed up weather predictions, helping people be more prepared for weather disruption from planning travel journeys to deploying flood defenses.”

The existing Isambard system. Image courtesy of GW4.

On the same day, the government announced £4.1 million in funding for Isambard 2, which will be hosted by the Met Office, supporting its weather and climate activities. Isambard 2 (an HPE-Cray system) is expected to be the largest Arm-based supercomputer in Europe, doubling the existing Cray ThunderX2-based machine, upping it to 21,504 cores across 336 nodes, and adding a Cray Fujitsu A64FX partition.

Cray’s Fujitsu A64FX board on display at SC19.

“It’s crucial for UK scientists to have access to the latest cutting-edge Arm technologies, as they’re one of the most likely paths to exascale computing and can help researchers solve global challenges,” said Simon McIntosh-Smith, principal investigator for the Isambard project and a professor of HPC at the University of Bristol. In a tweet, McIntosh-Smith elaborated that Isambard 2 would include “a small number of the very latest CPUs and GPUs from AMD, Intel and Nvidia to enable scientifically rigorous architectural comparisons, but [that] the main focus of Isambard is Arm-based CPUs.”

The announcements represent a recommitment to UK weather forecasting in an increasingly competitive global landscape. Last summer, the U.S. Global Forecast System received a major upgrade aimed at reestablishing U.S. forecasting leadership, and the Korean Institute of Atmospheric Prediction Systems announced a new forecasting model intended to eventually displace the Met Office’s Unified Model for use in South Korea.

Perhaps most appropriately, the UK announcement comes on the heels of an announcement by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). Just over a month ago, the ECMWF unveiled its plans to quintuple its supercomputing power through a four-year, $89-million contract with Atos. That new BullSequana XH2000 supercomputer, sourced from a European company and set to be housed in ECMWF’s new datacenter in Bologna, Italy, marks a shift in the winds for the traditionally UK-based, Cray-supplied ECMWF computing operations. 

With Brexit now the law of the land, the UK out of EuroHPC, the Unified Model being challenged and the ECMWF moving to emphasize its European roots, this new system sends a clear signal that the UK intends to remain a leader in weather and climate computing in a post-Brexit world. Interestingly, though, the UK might not be taking as literal an approach with its insourcing: the BBC reported that, in order to lower the carbon footprint of the system, the Met Office is considering siting the supercomputer in a renewable energy-rich neighbor like Iceland or Norway, breaking from the norm set by the preceding 14 Met Office systems.

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