Pushing The Limits Of Weather Forecasting

Climate change is giving meteorologists an added incentive to make accurate, ever more timely predictions. Supercomputers are helping them do it.

The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer in Lemont, Illinois, USA.
The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer in Lemont, Illinois, USA.
Yann Verdo

PARIS — Between 1970 and 2012, weather hazards produced 8,835 natural catastrophes, killed 1.94 million people and cost the world economy $2.4 trillion. The figures, as estimated by the World Weather Organization, are here to remind us of the vital importance of precise and reliable forecasts that, issued early enough, allow authorities to take preventive action.

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), created in 1975 and based in Reading, England, brings together 34 member states and their national forecasting services (including France's Météo-France). Today it has new and grand forecasting ambitions, established in 2016 in coordination with clients that include affiliated national forecasting services, weather channels, insurance firms and even the offshore oil sector. Its goal, betweeen now and 2025, is to make forecasting "earlier" and "finer" by further pushing the limits of simulating weather phenomena.

ECMWF currently uses one of two Cray XC40 supercomputers (the other one does research) to produce a twice-a-day "ensemble forecast" for the next 15 days. An ensemble prediction is a bundle of 50 forecasts. One is a reference. The other 49 are slightly differing copies with minuscule variations in the initial data. This factors in possible errors between observations.

And there are a lot of these. The Centre is "fed 40 million observations every day, 90% of which are from satellites," says its French head, Florence Rabier. These 40 million items provide data for an atmospheric model covering the entire planet, which is sectioned into squares with 18-kilometer sides. Each square is a kind of pixel in the bigger picture. "This is the finest mesh in the world for this type of model," says Rabier. "Even the Americans don't have anything better."

And yet the aim moving forward is to go into even greater detail — by tripling the resolution and tightening the mesh to five-kilometer squares. It won't be easy. A leap of this caliber is extremely costly in terms of calculating power. ECMWF experts believe that to go from 18 to 5-kilometer squares, the performance of the super calculators would have to increase 100-fold. Currently they have a calculating power of 8.5 petaFLOPS (already making them the most powerful of any used by forecasters anywhere).

Garden Wall Weather Station, MT — Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

But is it a mission impossible? Not necessarily. "Past evolution shows that capacity is multiplied by 10 every five years on average," Rabier explains. She says that improvements to calculation codes, which are the basis for the Centre's atmospheric model, will also help. One way of making calculation codes more effective is by minimizing the exchange of data between processors positioned alternately among the thousands inside the machine. Aiding local calculation (between adjacent processors) saves time and boosts calculation. ECMWF IT techs are working on that.

Looking into the future

The mesh that is 3.6 times finer and describes more precisely the initial state of the weather allows for more reliable and longer-term forecasts. Today, for "strong impact" weather conditions like a storm, the experts at Reading can forecast, on average, a week in advance, sometimes even earlier.

The aim is to push the prediction range to 10-days on average and two weeks in certain cases. For "large-scale weather systems," like the two-week heat wave that fanned across Europe in August 2015, forecasters would know three or even four weeks in advance. And for even bigger-scale anomalies, like El Niño, the goal is to foresee things a year before as opposed to seven months now.

Climate change appears to be causing an uptick in extreme events like storms or heat waves. And given the impact such phenomena have on people and property, it's easy to see the value of predicting weather as early as possible. Reading's Cray supercomputer doesn't just publish its 15-day forecasts twice a day. It also makes 45-day and even seven-month forecasts, though as the time-frame increases, the resolution used by the Cray computer decreases. If not, the machine would overheat.

All these forecasts, particularly the twice-daily edited 15-day forecasts, complement the forecasts of national services. They differ in their time scope, being medium-term as the ECMWF's name indicates rather than the two or three-day forecasts of national services. They're also global, as opposed to local. National forecasters like Météo-France use this service to check events on the contours of their own, more detailed regional models, says Rabier.

For its most detailed model, Météo-France goes as far as using meshing with 1.3 kilometer squares. And yet there are still occasional mistakes. That's what's so grand about the atmosphere: Given the complexity of the models and inherent difficulty in forecasting the weather, there is more than enough work for everyone.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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