UK Politics

Met Office needs more powerful computers - minister

A train travelling on snow-covered tracks
Image caption The UK's preparations for recent harsh winters have been criticised

The scientific rationale for the Met Office buying powerful supercomputers to improve weather forecasts is "clear and accepted", a minister has said.

Ed Davey told MPs that such a move would also build greater knowledge of climate change science, but it would have to be justified on cost grounds.

Leading meteorologists have suggested it would bring "enormous" benefits.

Mr Davey also suggested that plans to sell off the Met Office, floated in the past, had been shelved.

The Lib Dem business minister was appearing before the Commons science and technology committee, which is looking into the use of science by the Met Office and its overall effectiveness.

Crunching data

Senior metereologists told the committee last month that a shortage of computing power was limiting the improvements the Met Office can make to the accuracy of its weather forecasts.

The head of the Royal Meteorological Society said more supercomputers were needed to carry out complex calculations and the potential economic benefits of more accurate forecasts were "enormous" in terms of improved contingency planning for emergencies.

Mr Davey, who has responsibility for the Met Office since the body was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Business Department earlier this year, said the issue was being looked at.

"The work has started and it is happening with a degree of urgency," he said.

There was a clear case, he added, for the Met Office - which provides weather data to the government and the armed forces - to have more sophisticated technology to "crunch the data".

"We have to make sure the business case stacks up but the scientific case is clear and accepted," he added.

"While you do have to build a business case, I think it is sensible to invest in scientists and facilities that may be able to improve forecasting."

Mr Davey did not elaborate on how the supercomputers might be paid for but suggested that they would provide a dual benefit in providing both more accurate information on seasonal weather forecasts and also on long-term climate change challenges.

'World leader'

But Labour MP Graham Stringer said ministers should not rush into the move as the computers would be a "lot cheaper and better in a few years time".

Mr Davey also defended the Met Office's forecasting record, saying although their predictions were "not always right", they were regarded as the "best in the world" in terms of their reliability.

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.

The Conservatives floated plans to privatise the Met Office while in opposition but, following a review earlier this year, the government decided to reposition the body alongside the Land Registry and Ordinance Survey within a new Public Data Corporation.

Mr Davey said there were "no plans" to sell off the Met Office.

Any such move would have to overcome "difficult hurdles", he added, such as guaranteeing continued access to "absolutely vital" information.

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