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Every Cloud Has a Silicon Lining

Weather forecasting has vastly improved. Thank the data crunchers.

Hurricane Nicole bears down on Bermuda, Oct. 12, 2016. The image was captured by the Joint Polar Satellite System. (Image courtesy of NOAA/NASA)

Since the dawn of time, people peered at the clouds to see whether it looked like rain.

We still do. But we also rely on clusters of computers to get accurate, up-to-date weather forecasts. The computing power needed to process hundreds of calculations in a week once required machines as big as trucks. Now, “clusters” of small, laptop-like processors are linked together in supercomputers that process quadrillions of calculations per second.

“Weather-data capture, weather-data modeling and timely weather-data distribution require reliable, high-performance computing,” said Craig Stair, chief engineer for Raytheon high-performance computing, or HPC. “Forecasting a storm’s impact on Wednesday that struck land on Tuesday is irrelevant; we know the damage. Continuously improving HPC capabilities has allowed forecasters to predict a storm’s path and impact up to 10 days out.”


In 2011, global weather observations significantly improved when the Joint Polar Satellite System went live. The orbiting constellation of nine satellites supports multiple weather and climate research missions. It captures a lot of data.

JPSS satellites gather information on atmospheric, terrestrial and oceanic conditions all over the world. The data measure sea and land surface temperatures, vegetation, clouds, rainfall, snow and ice cover, fire locations and smoke plumes, atmospheric temperature, water vapor and ozone. Those key observations help forecasters predict severe weather like hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards days in advance, and assess environmental hazards such as droughts, forest fires, poor air quality and harmful conditions in coastal waters.

“The JPSS Common Ground System must deliver terabytes of data products per day at high speeds to support operational weather forecasting,” said Shawn Miller, technical director for Raytheon Navigation and Environmental Solutions. “To ensure those requirements are met without interruption, our engineers employed HPC principles for the ground system's design and deployment.”

Don’t rain on my parade

The first mathematical weather prediction — for an area near Munich, Germany — was made in 1904. It took several months to predict the weather within a six-hour window and it was inaccurate. Yet it was groundbreaking for meteorological science. By the 1950s, supercomputers (each with less computational power than a modern smartphone) were used to model 24-hour forecasts.

“The history of high-performance computing and weather forecasting are closely related going back to ENIAC, [one of the very first computers built], which could use electronic processing to solve numerical weather predictions,” said Brad Scalio, a Raytheon chief engineer and trained meteorologist. “Thankfully, the computational abilities of HPCs nearly double every year because of the rapid increase in the number of processor cores.”

they’ve got your six

Accurate weather forecasting is critically important to U.S. military personnel around the world. Detailed flight mission management, weather impacts and mission-tailored weather products are generated continuously by enlisted meteorologists. At the core of the forecast is a global network of computers running the Raytheon-managed Joint Environmental Toolkit. JET, managed remotely from Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, delivers an integrated, scalable system that provides weather analysis, forecasts and observation management with increased accuracy and less latency.

“JET is an extremely complex system,” said Jerry Rounds JET program manager. “By providing continuous synchronization of critical data on the minute, the system provides high availability of precise weather data for users.”

The world used to be bigger

Technological advancements in HPC have continuously helped improve the overall accuracy and timeliness of weather observation and prediction. On average, today's five-day weather forecast is as reliable as a two-day weather forecast made 20 years ago.

“HPC is the technology that allows us to make maximum use of all the data that is being collected to improve our daily lives,” said Miller. “There’s tons of weather data being generated every second of the day. All that data have to be crunched through a mathematical model that explains how the atmosphere works. Moving into the future, machines are going to get faster and faster. We're going to have more and more data allowing for improved forecasting.”

Even more high-powered computing will be needed to crunch that torrent of data. Raytheon is working on the development of quantum computing — employing the futuristic science of quantum mechanics to create computers that can solve problems too big or complicated for today's technology.

Scalio thinks future weather forecasting could also rely on a combination of analytics and crowdsourcing.

“In this age of Big Data, weather forecasting can benefit from having smartphones send back atmospheric conditions, cars reporting in road conditions, airplanes feeding high-altitude pressure and temperature, and have all of that being collected and crunched,” Scalio said. “Patterns in the data will start to emerge and this can complement and extend our current understanding, aiding in making national weather prediction better, but also, forecasts better.”

This document does not contain technology or Technical Data controlled under either the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations or the U.S. Export Administration Regulations. E16-R4DZ.

Published: 11/15/2016

Last Updated: 12/13/2016

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