In the (big) business of weather forecasting, success means certainty, and certainty means data – lots of data. We want to know what’s going to happen and when. We want lots of detail, regularly, and there are lots of good reasons why we want it as accurate as possible. And never is this more important than when a cyclone is on her way, with potentially devastating effect to lives, property and business.

Enter, the “supercomputers”.

A supercomputer is, in essence, a computer (often in reality many computers) capable of carrying out billions of calculations per second – think IBM’s Watson or Big Blue. A super computer costs in the 10’s of millions of dollars-plus to secure and install, and they are physically massive – tens of tonnes. Today’s demands of meteorological agencies – to get sensible and usable answers, quickly – make this sort of computing power essential.

NIWA, the agency primarily responsible for (among other things) monitoring and forecasting NZ’s weather hazards and climate, has had several supercomputers over the years (and they have continued to grow in size and complexity), all with a primary purpose of predicting NZ’s climate and weather.

The data required for accurate weather prediction is about as big as “Big Data” gets. Vast amounts of information are gathered from multiple sources, processed quickly – taking into account the impact of different variables – to get a prediction of what the weather is actually likely to do, when and to what effect. Speed is everything, and in extreme weather events can be a matter of life or death. If the calculations are too slow, then the “prediction” looks more like historical analysis, and so is worthless and possibly devastating.

It's not all about the machines though. The weather forecasting business does still need humans. NIWA’s meteorologists are essential for analysing the computer-generated images and modelling results, and explaining to us, in lay terms, what the images represent.

Supercomputers, in their capacity and potential, are super-cool and super-exciting, and highly specialised pieces of computing hardware. There is lots to know when acquiring supercomputing capacity, including where and how to keep them once you’ve got them, and there are some very significant traps for young players. (We know where these traps are, and have guided clients through the process.)