Tracking Hurricanes With Supercomputers

Tracking Hurricanes With Supercomputers

All eyes are on the Gulf of Mexico today as forecasters seek to gauge the strength of Tropical Storm Isaac and assess the threat the storm poses to the Gulf Coast, including the city of New Orleans. The colorful charts and maps showing the latest storm tracks are the front-end for some industrial-strength data-crunching.

All eyes are on the Gulf of Mexico today as forecasters seek to gauge the strength of Tropical Storm Isaac and assess the threat the storm poses to the Gulf Coast, including the city of New Orleans. The colorful charts and maps showing the latest storm tracks are the front-end for some industrial-strength data-crunching.

Hurricane scientists have developed sophisticated computer models to analyze the threat posed by hurricanes. This has helped forecasters make significant strides in projecting the path a hurricane will take. As Isaac approaches landfall, we'll likely here more about acronyms like GFS and ECWMF (two of the leading computer models) and their models for the exact track of the storm.

But it remains more difficult to predict the intensity of hurricanes, which can fluctuate in strength as they approach landfall. Hurricane intensity is ranked on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which assigns a category from 1 to 5, with Category 5 storms being the most powerful.

Last fall we reported on a new supercomputing facility in West Virginia designed to improve weather forecasters’ ability to predict the power of huge hurricanes, which could eventually help public officials make better decisions about when to call for the kind of mass evacuations seen during Hurricane Irene.

“The damage caused by the hurricane has almost everything to do with intensity,” said NOAA’s Darren Smith, who said predicting the intensity requires granular data.”The physics of a hurricane occur at a 1 kilometer resolution.”

The new supercomputer in West Virginia will bring more horsepower to test new models designed to better measure intensity. But it will also require about five years of development before the new model is ready for use in NOAA forecasts. Read the full story for more.

One of the prediction systems under discussion at the National Hurricane Center is a hurricane modeling system developed by Fuqing Zhang, professor of meteorology at Penn State. Zhang's system showed significant promise in predicting hurricane intensity during major storms, including Hurricane Irene last year. The model was tested using the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) in Austin, Texas.

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