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Niwa: $12 million supercomputer will trim insurance bills

New Zealand is to become home to the southern hemisphere’s most powerful climate change modelling system.

Niwa (The National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research) is to buy a Power 575 Supercomputer from IBM. Including supporting infrastructure, the total bill will be $12.7 million.

While the sticker price seems a bit of a shocker at a time when low-cost blade server systems (built from scores of low-cost Wintel servers) are challenging olde world supercomputers, “The United Kingdom Met Office estimated the benefit to cost ratio of their similar supercomputer was nine times that of the total cost of ownership, based solely on its capability to improve flood forecast lead times,” said Niwa chief executive John Morgan.

Claims from damage caused by weather events in July and August last year are estimated at $68 million, according to the Insurance Council of New Zealand, and the 2004 Central North Island floods alone resulted in insurance claims of more than $400 million.

“Industries that are climate-sensitive - such as the energy sector, farming, horticulture and tourism - will benefit directly from Niwa’s ability to make more accurate and more specific forecasts. The new supercomputer will also allow Niwa to improve early warnings of the effects of severe events, such as flooding and storm surges,” said Mr Morgan.

The new toy should be able to run weather simulations far faster than Niwa’s current kit, a Cray T3E.

Hazards forecasting models that took 80 minutes to complete on 40% of the previous supercomputer will now take eight minutes on about 4% of the new system – allowing more complex and comprehensive forecasting models to be developed.

And where the Cray can only model humans’ effect on the climate out a few decades, the new system will - with 100 times the computational power - be able to model our environment in chunks spanning hundreds of years.

Niwa says the Power 575 will be relatively kind to the world it models. A recent survey by Green500.org found that IBM supercomputers are the most energy-efficient in the world.

The new supercomputer - which will include 600 terabytes (600,000 gigabytes of onboard storage) - will be new system will be cooled, in part, by a system that uses sea water from Evans Bay, adjacent to Niwa’s facility in Wellington. This arrangement will help cut the 575’s power demands by 40%, saving the equivalent of 50 households of electricity, says Niwa.

More by Chris Keall

Comments and questions
5

The fact that taxpayer's largesse will allow NIWA to run models of global climate change for hundreds of years into the future will be a big help in overcoming the effects of the recession.

Why do we need the most expensive climate modelling supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere? Is this because we have adopted the most ambitious 2020 targets for emission-cuts in the Southern Hemisphere (or Northern, for that matter)?

Sorry but I must ask, with regards to comparison of emission reduction targets, where are you getting this data from?

... to locate a supercomputer to provide advanced warnings next to a very active earthquake fault line?

Weather modelling is one of the most common uses of supercomputers and nearly all the modelling is done in the Northern Hemisphere - that requires sending the data from our weather sensors to the Northern Hemisphere and then having the models sent back.

As the data transmission speeds between us and the Northern Hemisphere has improved, this has been the single biggest influence on weather forecasting accuracy in this country.

Having a weather modelling supercomputer in NZ takes the data transmission limitation out of the equation and allows us to do much more accurate modelling for our country and the pacific islands and large amounts of ocean we are duty bound to monitor.

In terms of cost/benefit, it's money well spent.

Hi
Interesting article, it would be nice to know the technical details.