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Why the weather forecast is about to get a lot better

February 21, 2020, 2:10 PM UTC

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Everybody complains about the weather, and now somebody’s going to do something about it.

All joking aside, predicting the weather is serious business. From agriculture to shipping to the utility grid, knowing the forecast can be worth billions of dollars. And there’s the matter of saving lives ahead of storms and floods, a growing concern as climate change roils the atmosphere.

In the U.S., the responsibility falls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its National Weather Service. The service relies a handful of supercomputers called Venus, Mars, Luna and Surge to run the massive climate models that help predict the weather over the next 10 days and chart the path of major storms. Well, they certainly were supercomputers at the time they were installed. Luna and Surge were among the 50 fastest computers on the planet five years ago. But with advancements in chip design and system architecture, they’ve been surpassed and now barely rank in the top 350.

So it’s time for an upgrade. On Thursday, NOAA announced that it had selected two new supercomputers from Cray that can each perform 12 thousand million million floating-point operations per second. That’s the number 12 followed by 15 zeroes, for those of you counting at home. Or, as we say in the supercomputer game, 12 petaflops.

That will triple the agency’s computing capacity and be good enough to rank in the top 20 fastest in the world, though the new weather predictors will need about a year of testing before coming online from offices in Manassas, Virginia, and Phoenix, Arizona. Including supplies and services, NOAA is spending $505 million on an eight-year contract overseen by a unit of General Dynamics. It seems like pocket change given the stakes.

Atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass at the University of Washington has long been a critic of the weather service’s modeling and computing shortfalls. So I called the good professor yesterday to ask for his thoughts on the latest super-boost to NOAA’s supercomputers. While he says that the new computers are “extremely good news” and “a huge improvement that they need,” Mass still believes that the government needs to get better organized around its weather modeling efforts.

To that end, acting NOAA administrator Noah Jacobs has been working to establish the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, or EPIC. Next month, the agency will issue a request for proposals to get EPIC going. The scope and details of the request should reveal how serious the government is about state-of-the-art weather forecasting, Mass says.

In the meantime, keep an umbrella handy. And have a great weekend.

Aaron Pressman

Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Against the wind. Hackers got into the computers of MGM Resorts, one of Las Vegas’s biggest hotel chains, and stole personal information about almost 11 million customers. The purloined data included names, addresses, emails, phone numbers and dates of birth but not financial information. MGM said the attack was discovered last summer.

Don't let the sun go down on me. Testing new 5G mobile networks rolled out across the country, research firm Opensignal found Verizon had the fastest average download speed, but T-Mobile's network had the broadest coverage. Still, coverage was uneven. "All of the 5G speeds we see are fast by U.S. standards, but seeing a 5G icon on the screen is no guarantee of 5G," analysts noted.

Lightning strike. Speaking of mobile world, Sprint and T-Mobile amended their merger agreement to decrease the price paid to major Sprint shareholder Masayoshi Son. All other Sprint shareholders will get just over $10 per share in T-Mobile stock, but Son's SoftBank Group gets under $9 a share for its controlling stake. The renegotiation sets the companies up to close deal within weeks.

Have you ever seen the rain. Some regulatory challenges for Google: The New Mexico attorney general sued the company over allegedly tracking students through free Chromebooks. And the company is resisting demands for some documents being sought by almost every state AG investigating Google for antitrust violations, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Ain't no sunshine. About 300 Oracle employees walked out of their offices on Thursday to protest chairman Larry Ellison's fundraiser for President Trump this week.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The coronavirus outbreak has put a spotlight on working from home. It's also sometimes featured in the sustainability debate as a possible way to reduce traffic and the accompanying pollution. In a piece for the BBC, writer Meredith Turits explores some research that questions whether this assumption is true.

If sustainability is the future of the planet, then the remote jobs that seem like the future of work may not actually be. In fact, workers may end up back in offices.

Blame it on technology. Zero-emissions forms of transport such as electric vehicles are quickly becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous – even the gas-guzzling GM Hummer is going electric. Additionally, some places such as the Portland in US state of Oregon don’t allow new constructions to burn fossil fuels. With these improvements, which are on track to outpace innovation for individual homes, there could be a point at which it’s never more efficient to work from home anywhere in the world.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few long reads that I came across this week:

Fast-and-loose culture of esports is upending once staid world of chess (NBC News)
Grandmasters and upstarts are reinventing the game online, becoming its most visible ambassadors and arguably its first entertainers.

The Great Google Revolt (New York Times Magazine)
Some of its employees tried to stop their company from doing work they saw as unethical. It blew up in their faces.

The Great Buenos Aires Bank Heist (GQ)
They were an all-star crew. They cooked up the perfect plan. And when they pulled off the caper of the century, it made them more than a fortune—it made them folk heroes.

Being Kind to Animals Can Get You Into ‘The Good Place’ (Tenderly)
Saying farewell to a phenomenal series that taught philosophy alongside making us laugh — and taught that how we treat animals matters, too.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra: A big phone that takes amazing photos By Aaron Pressman

5 reasons the T-Mobile-Sprint merger should’ve been rejected—and will raise your phone bill By Nicholas Economides and six others

HTC CEO Yves Maitre on the company’s ‘new vision,’ virtual reality, and the rivalry with Facebook By Aric Jenkins

Udacity’s new, online A.I. course targets an important market: bosses By Jonathan Vanian

Facing falling enlistment numbers, the U.S. Army takes a new approach to recruitment: Mom and Dad By Nicole Goodkind

BEFORE YOU GO

A short, sweet video for the end of your week: Dolphins amaze with their swimming and jumping tricks, but they must start out learning from their parents, as you can see in this tweet from author and scientist Dr. Michelle Dickinson. Make sure you have the sound on.