UK Politics

Lack of computing power 'hindering weather forecasting'

Gritting lorry in snow in Perthshire
Image caption MPs were told that seasonal forecasts could be made a lot more accurate - and valuable

A lack of computing power is limiting the improvements the Met Office can make to the accuracy of its weather forecasts, MPs have been told.

Prof Paul Hardaker, head of the Royal Meteorological Society, was speaking to the Commons science committee.

He said more supercomputers were needed to carry out complex calculations, but finding the money was "an issue".

However, the potential economic benefits of more accurate forecasts were "enormous", the MPs heard.

The science and technology committee is carrying out an inquiry into the use of science by the Met Office and the effectiveness of the body as a whole.

Seasonal forecasts

It was told that scientists were increasingly able to gather the data necessary for very local predictions.

It also heard that while accurate seasonal forecasts for northerly latitudes like the UK's were harder to achieve, progress could be made with investment.

Prof Ed Hill, director of the National Oceanography Centre, said: "The potential, if one could have reliable seasonal forecasts, is enormous.

"The kinds of users would be obviously from the insurance sector, the power generation industry, construction, agriculture, tourism, the retail industry - understanding which products to put on the shelves at any time - manufacturing and transport.

"The potential is enormous and particularly where large investments are at stake. Then, any information that can add some level of insight into what is going on is worth having.

"Particularly if you're into activities which are a little akin to betting then something that's a good deal better than evens may well help out with those investments - I'm thinking of some of the insurance businesses in that respect."

'Long way behind'

But Prof Hill, Prof Hardaker and a third witness - Prof Alan Thorpe, the director general of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts - all agreed a lack of supercomputers was a major problem.

"I recognise there's an affordability issue and we have to make priorities, but it is a significant limitation in our capability at the moment," Prof Hardaker said.

"When we are starting to try to look into the whole earth system... the complications of that are such that we do really need to make a step change in current capabilities."

Prof Thorpe added: "We have fallen a long way behind the curve in terms of computer ability keeping pace with the science. This is a real limitation.

"There was a time when weather forecasting... in terms of the use of world's top computers, was high up on that list. It's actually slid further and further down.

"That change has prevented us advancing as quickly as we could have done."

The Met Office is largely funded by the government, with some additional money coming from the Civil Aviation Authority and other sources like the European Union.

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