New Weather System Will Provide Vastly Improved Forecasting Around the World - By Cameron Clayton

By Cameron Clayton

Weather influences what people do--where we travel, what we eat, even how we feel. Weather is arguably the single most important external swing factor in business performance, potentially responsible for nearly half a trillion dollars in economic impact each year in the U.S. alone.

At the same time, reporting of extreme weather events – droughts, wild fires, heavy rainfall, floods – is becoming more common. As such, the world needs better, more accurate, more finely-tuned weather forecasts.  

For these reasons, IBM is introducing the IBM Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System. The system, called GRAF for short, will be the first hourly-updating weather system that is able to predict something as small as a thunderstorm virtually anywhere on the planet. Compared to existing models, it will provide a nearly 200% improvement in forecasting resolution for much of the globe (from 12 to 3 sq km). It will be available later this year.

GRAF represents a huge step forward. Until now, much of the world had to settle for predictions from models that covered 12- to 15-kilometer swaths of land—too wide to capture many weather phenomena. In addition, leading weather models update less frequently, every 6 to 12 hours in much of the world. In contrast, GRAF will provide 3-kilometer resolution that updates hourly, delivering reliable predictions for the day ahead.

Not only will this much-improved weather system help people and communities better plan for upcoming weather conditions, it will help:

  • Utility companies to better position repair crews to get power back faster after a storm
  • Airlines to more effectively route around turbulence
  • Farmers to better anticipate and prepare for dramatic shifts in weather
  • Insurers to predict surges in weather-related claims
  • Retailers to stock their shelves more efficiently

Terabytes of Data

All of this is possible because the system pulls previously untapped sources from millions of sensors worldwide and in-flight data, and it also runs on a hardware platform capable of processing the massive volumes of data required. GRAF will be the first commercial weather system to include wind speeds and temperature readings taken by sensor readings on airplanes all over the world.

This is made possible through a relationship with FlightAware, which works with airlines and air traffic control stations globally to collect 10 million high-altitude data points from aircraft every day. Each plane will transmit readings every 5 seconds, while flying through the atmosphere at 500-600 miles per hour.

GRAF can also crowdsource additional weather data by harnessing pressure sensor readings sent from barometers found within smartphones if people opt in to sharing that information. The Weather Company will assure it conforms to the relevant operating system terms of use. Additionally hundreds of thousands of weather stations, many run by amateur weather enthusiasts, can also contribute data to the model.

Supercomputers are used to run nearly all weather forecast models. In the U.S., Japan and a handful of other countries primarily in Western Europe, supercomputers are available to run storm-scale weather forecast models many times a day. In the rest of the world weather forecasting can be less precise and less consistent, mainly due to a need for computing horsepower.

GRAF includes graphics processing units (GPUs) that accelerate workloads for faster performance. More specifically, GRAF will be composed of 84 nodes of the IBM Power Systems AC922 server and use 3.5 petabytes of IBM Elastic Storage capacity to keep the model fed. This is the same technology used by the U.S Department of Energy in the Summit and Sierra supercomputers, the two most powerful computers in the world.

This newest weather prediction system is made possible by The Weather Company’s open-source collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). GRAF incorporates the latest-generation global weather model – the Model for Predictions Across Scales, or MPAS – which was developed by NCAR with the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"This is a great example of how long-term basic research funded by the federal government has created an industry opportunity that is both good for the bottom line and protects lives and property,” said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages NCAR on behalf of the National Science Foundation.

We believe GRAF will be the most sophisticated and farthest-reaching forecasting system ever made. The best part? Anybody with The Weather Channel app on their smartphone will benefit from it not only with access to improved forecasts, but also can – with permission -- share pressure sensor readings via the app to improve accuracy. They are contributing to democratizing weather data.