Met Office’s new gambit to avoid gaffes

FOR the Met Office it could be the ultimate equation. It has staked its reputation on a new computer program that will predict the weather across every mile of the country.

The ENDGame program will work by building a virtual model of the entire UK, and then predicting the weather at 100-metre points, on the ground and up to 11 miles high.

If it works it could finally give the Met Office the ability to predict thunderstorms, cloudbursts, black ice and other threats, many caused by weather systems too small or extreme to be predicted by existing models.

Some such failures have been disastrous — like the devastating flash flood that hit the Cornish village of Boscastle in 2004, or the great storm of 1987 when the southeast was swept by hurricane-force winds.

Others infuriating — such as the Met Office’s 2009 prediction of a “barbecue summer”, which was followed by weeks of heavy rain.

The Met Office was heavily criticised each time but scientists say its programs simply lacked the fine resolution needed to do better.

“For example, the former models could not work out how features like the hills of Snowdonia affect regional weather,” said Professor Nigel Wood, who oversaw the creation of the ENDGame program.

“A lot of local weather happens at this scale. We can also start to model the urban heat effect, which makes cities warmer than the countryside, and so get better temperature forecasts. Before, we could not even see London’s heating effect but now it is emerging clearly.”

The computing power needed for such forecasts is huge. For each of the virtual points across and above Britain, the program uses 3,000 processors to solve 13 complex equations. It means each of the Met Office’s four daily forecasts will need 10 million billion calculations.

One thing is almost certain: the Met Office is unlikely to predict another barbecue summer — but not because of ENDGame; instead, because it has also decided to stop making long-range forecasts.

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Meredith Weisser

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