Taking the guesswork out of predicting the weather
by Trevor Clarke, The Australian Financial Review
The Bureau of Meteorology’s chief executive is a little unusual. But in a good way. Dr Rob Vertessy says the Bureau isn’t just a weather forecaster. It’s an “environmental intelligence agency”.
Yet the terminology he prefers to describe the organisation is not why he is unique.
In fact, with all of the different roles the bureau plays – weather forecasting, climate research, ocean forecasting, the tsunami warning service, the national tidal centre, and the national space weather ionosphere prediction service, among others – calling the bureau an “environmental intelligence agency” makes total sense.
Where Dr Vertessy is unusual is in the fact he is one of very few Australian CEOs that volunteers to talk publicly about the role of technology in his organisation – and actually sounds intelligent. And he is quick to say that the weather bureau’s business is information and that business turns on IT.
“We are now very well into a significant IT transformation process that I believe is necessary to propel that environmental intelligence agenda,” Dr Vertessy said.
“We do need leading-edge IT and data services if we are going to be successful. It is just getting more and more complicated as data volumes balloon as the complexity of the models escalate, it creates great challenges for everything from data curation through to forecast model creation through to data transfer speeds and ultimately presentation to the public. IT to me is really the key.”
An extensive transformation
The bureau’s IT transformation has indeed been extensive. Dr Vertessy started the makeover by consolidating all of the agency’s disparate IT teams into one central IT and data management division.
He also appointed former AGIMO staffer Dr Lesley Seebeck as the bureau’s Deputy Director responsible for IT, and elevated the new central IT department to division level; making it much closer to the executive.
“Now we are running a portfolio of projects that are enabling us to surf three big waves. The first wave is to do with forecasting systems and supercomputers. That is really the foundation stone for everything else. We’ve almost finished a five-year project called the Next-Gen project”.
The Next Generation Forecast and Warning System (the “Next-Gen project) is visible as the bureau’s MetEye product. Previously, the bureau provided forecasts for capital cities.
But once the Northern Territory component of the project goes live in two months’ time – completing the five-year effort – the bureau will have the ability to provide forecasts for each six-square-kilometre on a grid overlaid across the country.
All this, of course, will only add to the bureau’s already ballooning data volumes that it collects from 650 automatic weather stations, two continuous satellite data streams, 10 wind profilers detecting wind speed and direction, and a fleet of 63 radars.
Only set to get bigger
It generates more than a terabyte of data each day and has a total of 16 petabytes in storage. It forecasts this to increase by factor of 10 over the next six years.
The bureau has also commissioned a new data link between its two main data centres, with an increase from 80Gbps to 200Gbps to cater for this data explosion.
Amid this, it’s also upgrading its legacy systems, pursuing a new enterprise architecture, and investing heavily in developing mobile applications that can operate on phones and also the emerging platforms such as cars, fridges, and even wearables.
But the next of the “waves” the weather bureau will ride is the procurement of a new supercomputer – the organisation’s eighth. The new supercomputer is forecast to be more powerful than Australia’s current number one installation called Raijin at the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI).
The one final transformative wave that when combined with the supercomputer will mean a leap forward in capability is a sunflower. Well, a satellite called Himawari 8 (which means sunflower in Japanese) set to be launched this year and begin operation in 2015. “It is going to be like moving from black and white TV to full HD, digital colour,” Dr Vertessy says.
“It’ll be a big step-change. We are going to have four times the spatial resolution. We are going to have six times the temporal resolution moving from hourly to 10-minute observations. And three times the spectral resolution.
“That is not only going to enhance modelling skills but is going to give us far greater insight into weather particularly those rapidly changing conditions like convective storms and squall lines which are pretty hard to forecast a couple of hours out.”
Dr Vertessy says today’s seven-day weather forecasts are as good as a three-day forecast 10 years ago and that meteorological agencies obtain a day of forecasting skill every three or so years.
The bureau’s transformation is expected to accelerate this improvement curve.
“It’s exciting. There are not many areas of science that are going forward in such a systematic improvement”, Dr Vertessy says. “World meteorology is a miracle when you think about it. It has practical utility value but also the innate scientific advances being made are breathtaking.”