Technology advances for the weather service

Submitted by Olivier Gagnon

When the Meteorological Service of Canada was established in 1871, Canada’s population was about 3.5 million people, and was largely rural and scattered across the country. Weather stations, sparsely spaced out across continental United States and southern Canada, reported local weather observations through telegraph networks, allowing large-scale weather maps to be drawn by hand. One of the main objectives of the meteorological service in those days was to provide marine storm warnings for fishermen and mariners.

Since its early days, meteorology has had to keep pace with improvements in measurement technologies and the growing demands for more weather services. Two major advancements in technology were the development of commercial aviation in the early 1930s and agriculture expanding to industrial levels after the Second World War. This evolution was made possible by advancements in atmospheric and ocean sciences and by the development and evolution of new technologies, such as telecommunications (telephone, radio, TV) and then radar, satellites, computers and the internet.

Todays supercomputers have allowed for an enormous increase in forecast areas (from worldwide weather patterns to city scale forecasts) and lead-time (from hours ahead to seasonal forecasts). They have helped us to go beyond traditional weather forecasts and into environmental forecasts, such as air quality, sea ice, wave and water level forecasts.

Map of Canada showing pressure and wind forecasts. Inaugural Transmission Canadian Weatherfax System written at the top.
Map of Canada celebrating the creation of a facsimile system for sharing weather forecasts across Canada. Map is showing pressure and wind forecast from 1953.

Tomorrow’s high performance computers will be capable of performing a billion billion calculations per second (which is 10-20x faster than today's supercomputers; this is called exascale computing). Supercomputers have enabled the development of rapid environmental emergency response, such as volcanic ash forecasts for aviation safety, wildfire smoke forecasts for fighting forest fires and toxic plume forecasts for chemical and nuclear incidents. We can also use supercomputers to run simulations to help guide environmental policy development.

The next frontier on tomorrow’s supercomputers will be the creation of a highly detailed digital replica (a “digital twin”) of the Earth to give us a better understanding our planet’s past, present, and future. This will help us monitor the health of the planet and simulate how certain activities and choices will effect the planet in the future, supporting decision making.

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