Supercomputing weather with ‘Thor’

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center here acquired a supercomputer that is the latest step in a long-running weather prediction arms race.

The system, named Thor, models global weather patterns and provides individual air bases and army units with specific forecasts for areas as small as 17 square kilometers. The computer system is comprised of nearly 1,000 individual blade servers. When constructed in May 2016, Thor was the 150th most powerful supercomputer on earth, according to TOP500, which rates supercomputer speeds.

“Knowing accurate weather forecasts has always been a military imperative,” said Dr. Frank Ruggiero, Thor’s lead engineer at AFLCMC-Offutt AFB, Nebraska, where the system is located. “Going back to D-Day, one of the major reasons that operation was successful was surprise. That surprise was generated partially because the Germans did not have accurate reads on weather in the North Atlantic. They thought we couldn’t invade June 6, 1944, because the weather wasn’t good enough.”

Today, accurate weather modeling is dependent on a few major factors. Initial data gathering via satellite, buoys and ground weather stations provides current weather conditions at the point of collection. The ability to compile that data is a second step. The final step relies on some of the largest computing centers on earth to crunch composite conditions and forecast the likely future state of the weather. This third step is where Thor comes in.

Prior to acquiring Thor, Army and Air Force weather predictions relied on data from the United Kingdom Meteorological Office. Thor’s increased capacity allows weather Airmen at Offutt to generate initial conditions and process them. Locally produced baseline data, combined with Thor’s increased processing speed, results in forecasts reaching the warfighter in half the time. This gives forecasters and mission planners up to three extra hours to exploit forecasts.

Hanscom’s acquisition process began in 2014, and development by the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., took one full year. Northrop installed Thor in early 2016 and handed it over to the Air Force in May 2017.

“We’re running the same modeling program as our allies in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand,” said Robert Born, Thor program manager. “That way, when we’re in joint operations, we can all be working off the same forecast and aligning our plans to the same base assumptions.”

In addition to providing a processing location for all U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army forecasts, Thor is able to provide more customized forecasts for military applications. Aeronautical forecasts include up to 80 weather gradients reaching high into the atmosphere, whereas civilian forecasts usually only cover ground reports. Thor also works to provide narrow forecasts in remote areas where military units are active, typically overlooked in more regionally-focused forecast models.

“An accurate forecast is a force multiplier,” said Ruggiero. “We know that military operations depend on weather, and Thor can provide commanders with that knowledge.”