UK Met Office super found to have a black thumb

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The TimesOnline ran a story last week about the UK Met Office’s new £33M ($65M, roughly) IBM super. Evidently some public reaction to the computer’s carbon footprint has been negative

For the Met Office the forecast is considerable embarrassment. It has spent £33m on a new supercomputer to calculate how climate change will affect Britain – only to find the new machine has a giant carbon footprint of its own.

“The new supercomputer, which will become operational later this year, will emit 14,400 tonnes of CO2 a year,” said Dave Britton, the Met Office’s chief press officer. This is equivalent to the CO2 emitted by 2,400 homes – generating an average of six tonnes each a year.

This is a point of sensitivity in the UK because they’ve recently been in the business of publishing admonitions about the seriousness of not reducing carbon footprint

However, when it came to buying a new supercomputer, the Met Office decided not to heed its own warnings. The ironic problem was that it needed the extra computing power to improve the accuracy of its own climate predictions as well as its short-term weather forecasting. The machine will also improve its ability to predict extreme events such as fierce localised storms, cloudbursts and so on.

Met Office officials are arguing, correctly in my opinion, that supercomputing is the only way to get a handle on climate change and the potential result in the environment of changes in human behavior through energy consumption policy. But, they clearly did not get in front of this perception problem. Perhaps there is a word of warning here for other agencies that invest in supercomputing and work on climate policy? (I’m thinking of you, DoE.)


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  1. Craig Tierney says

    It’s not just the DoE who should be thinking about the carbon impact of their HPC systems. This was in a local paper in May 2008:

  2. Craig – great link. Thanks.

  3. I wonder what the carbon footprint of 10,000,000 people with calculators (or abacus’s if you’re really really an environmental Luddite) doing the same work would be?

    It’s nice when people worry about their effect on the environment, but it does need to be balanced with the gains.

    How many lives will be lost by the carbon footprint of the new super vs how many lives may be saved with better forecasts?

    How much damage will be done with a carbon footprint vs how much property will be saved with proper warning of inclement weather?

    All things in balance.


  4. Guy Robinson says

    There was an item in the UK Times which added some numbers to the good points Rich raised. Humans often tend to focus on the easily quantifiable metrics rather than tenuous and hard to measure rewards.

    I have posted the URL here, but at the moment the link isn’t working, search the Times for Met Office Carbon Computer might find it, maybe they have run out of space, seems to be some big event going on in the States at the moment.


  5. Guy Robinson says

    Here is a link to the times item which works, original story moved!

    claims Met. Office forecasts save 74 lives a year.

  6. To be fair I don’t think the argument being made is one against supercomputing, but rather that the agency who purchased the supercomputer is very much on the forefront of making predictions about the state of the environment and the negative impact of increasing carbon emissions, and it was not prepared to frame its purchase in those terms, or address the concerns when they were raised.

    I’m certainly not arguing that the Met Office made a bad decision either, but I think they are guilty of having a tin ear on this issue, which at least suggests some level of organizational dysfunction with respect to carbon footprint (ie, concern about it has not yet become a “gut” issue that pervades the organization).

  7. Just read the article all the way through. Thanks for the link Guy.

    You’re right John. The article points out the fact that the Met Office with it’s constant barrage of Gloom and Doom, and “we’re all going to die” from Global Warming, has some egg on it’s face.

    It’s a given that these big systems us a lot of power. It’s just funny that the Met Office was displayed as being caught flat footed when it came to their own impact on Global Warming.

  8. oracle2world says

    No one cares about the carbon footprint of a new supercomputer, they just want to point out the hypocrisy of the group that tells the little folks to sacrifice. That is why liberals are such an easy target. Oh well … when folks freeze their a** off for the next ten years they may get the message that climate change (no more “global warming” stuff now) forecasts 100 years in the future are ridiculous in theory.