Niwa's number crunching supercomputer gets a $18 million upgrade
It's the data-crunching behemoth that helped forecast a scorching new climate for Wellington and Wairarapa by 2090, but Niwa's supercomputer - FitzRoy - is retiring and about to be usurped by a model many times more powerful.
The 18-tonne computer is housed in a specially-constructed room at the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research base at Greta Point on the edge of Wellington Harbour and is designed to withstand severe earthquakes, tsunami and fire.
Installed in 2010 the supercomputer has helped drive some of our most important climate forecasting, including two years processing data to create ultra-long range models that predict a blazing, parched Wairarapa and Sydney-style heat for the capital by 2090.
Niwa's chief climate, atmosphere and hazards scientist Sam Dean said FitzRoy allows scientists to do high-resolution climate modelling that covers the whole country - a situation unique in the world.
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"We don't just run weather models - rain never did anything until it hit the ground or landed on a person's head - what we do is we join other models to that weather model."
This includes hydrological modelling keeping tabs on 66,000 waterways as well as storm surges, ocean levels and wave action that is fused with weather forecasting, allowing meteorologists to forecast hazardous events like flooding, or high waves in the Cook Strait.
"It's a little bit like playing God - these models mimic everything the earth does - that has a beauty which is quite amazing and that really inspires me," Dean said.
But just as you might get a new PC after seven years, a new - as yet nameless - $18 million suite of three supercomputers (equivalent to about 16,000 laptops) is set to take FitzRoy's place come November.
One of these - the Cray XC50 - has a theoretical peak equivalent to 1.4 trillion calculations per second and will keep Niwa in possession of one of the world's top 500 supercomputers.
Another backup disaster recovery machine containing 1340 hard drives will be taken to Auckland with all of FitzRoy's existing data on what Dean describes as "NZ's biggest USB stick" because sending the data via the network would take four years.
At 23 tonnes the entire upgrade suite will be about 13 times more powerful than FitzRoy, while using about two-thirds of the electricity, and will expand Niwa's forecasting to a higher resolution, all while giving a better handle on forecast precision.
"Every time we've bought a new supercomputer it's challenged our concepts of what's possible - it takes us a couple of years for our science to catch up with the technology - it expands our vision," Dean said.