In Conversation with...Florence Rabier
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) advances weather science, provides the EU with crucial environmental information and has one of the world’s largest supercomputers, explains Director General Dr Florence Rabier
How did the ECMWF come about and why was it required in the first place?
The idea arose after the Second World War and the thinking was ‘let’s try to do something together’ as Europeans. This combined with the growing influence of aviation, particularly the growth of long-haul flights created a need for good weather forecasting. At the time, weather forecasts were accurate for perhaps a day or two if you were lucky.
The thinking was that we should aim to push weather forecasting well beyond the one-or two-day limit and up to 10 days in advance. And could we do this not just for Europe but for the global common good? So, this is how we came about. A centre was built around the twin aspects of computing and science to develop weather forecasting that could look up to 10 days into the future. And so, we were created in 1975.
Was there any particular reason why the centre ended up being located in the UK?
There was a competition about where the Centre should be located managed by COST, and the UK made a strong case with the support of Prime Minister Heath and won. The UK’s meteorological base (the MET office) was located in Bracknell, just outside London, at the time. The Centre’s location was chosen as it was close to Bracknell and also to the University of Reading where there was a university that was particularly strong on meteorology.
ECMWF provides both research and operational activities doesn't it?
Yes, it is an extremely important aspect, which I believe is what gives ECMWF its strength. It’s not just an academic and research centre and it’s not just about operations.
The people here develop the models and tools and run them on our supercomputer in real time, 24/7. This is what makes us unique, the way people work very closely together to provide services across the whole spectrum from research to operations. But to predict the weather more than two or three days ahead for a country in Europe, you actually need to know what the weather is like over the Atlantic, the United States and even the Pacific. And if you want to go beyond a week you need to also know what it’s like in the Tropics and in the southern hemisphere.
That is the reason why you need global models producing global numerical weather predictions that individual nations can use for their own purposes. So, that’s our main goal; pushing the limits of the science of predicting the weather and producing those predictions in real time every day to our Member States and users worldwide. We take pride in the work we do with and for the EU. Sharing vision and expertise leads to what is a relationship which benefits the EU, ECMWF and its Member States.
Talking about pushing the limits of science, can you tell us a little bit about the computer system you have at the centre? And what’s so special about it?
We use high performance computing (HPC), also known as supercomputing, and we have one of the largest computers used for meteorology in the world. The first Cray Supercomputer in Europe was installed at ECMWF, the famous Cray-1 supercomputer. Computing is central to our activities because that’s where we run our models and our scientific experiments. We typically change our supercomputer every five years.
“We take pride in the work we do with and for the EU. Sharing vision and expertise leads to what is a relationship which benefits the EU, ECMWF and its Member States”
At the moment we have a Cray, but we’ve also used IBM, and Fujitsu in the past. It all depends on what best suits our scientific and operational needs at the time. We have a very large archive, which is also one of our strengths. We save all the weather observations and our analysis and forecasts in a meteorological archive, making it the largest metrological archive in the world, which is used by researchers and scientists around the globe.
The centre is an independent, intergovernmental agency, yet it collaborates extensively with the EU. When and how did this come about?
We were created back in 1975 through the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) programme following what is termed a COST Action, so right from the beginning we were part of that European spirit of doing things together. The relationship with the EU started from the early days and in the first instance was focussed on research. Over the years, EU funding and support have allowed scientific advances which have contributed and are still contributing to dramatically improve weather and environmental prediction.
The EU benefits from the relationship with us because we were created to attract some of the best scientists in Europe and because, thanks to our supercomputer, we can crunch a lot of data, all of which contribute to delivering the EU’s vision in environmental prediction. A good example is the strong support that the EU has provided to our Reanalysis programme, where we go back in time, mine our archives and reanalyse all the observations from decades ago. This helps us understand how the climate has changed over the last decade and even from the last century. This Reanalysis programme is today one of the key components of the EU-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service.
The EU also had the vision many years ago to fund several projects covering prediction of the atmospheric composition including trace gases such as ozone, aerosols, pollutants and pollen. This is today the basis of the Copernicus atmosphere monitoring service. As a result, we operate today, on behalf of the EU, two Services of the Copernicus Programme, Climate Change and Atmosphere Monitoring, an activity that offers a huge range of synergies with our weather prediction activities.
As a UK-hosted entity, will Brexit have an impact on your activities?
We are an intergovernmental organisation, so Brexit doesn’t have an immediate impact on us, as there should be no real problems for our staff. We expect that the UK will aim to develop its relationship with Europe across the Horizon and Copernicus activities, so hopefully the UK will remain part of the European scientific community. The question of our location becomes a little trickier if the UK is not part of the Copernicus Programme, and we are investigating options to move our EU-funded activities to an EU country, should this become appropriate.
Over the past couple of years, we have been working with the Italian Government, at developing our new data centre in Bologna, and this exercise is illustrating the wealth of new opportunities for partnerships fl owing from this development. We now have one foot in the UK, and the other in Bologna, Italy, where our new supercomputer will go. We were built on the concept of collaboration, and we will work with our Member States and around Brexit and its impact to continue to do so.
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