Clockwise from left: Yurii Bershadskiy via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Emili Vilamala via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Yurii Bershadskiy via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Rodolfo Romeor via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Emili Vilamala via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Šime Barešić via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Jaegyu Yeo via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Shukria Rezaie via World Meteorological Organization/Flickr; Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

In winter 2018, a research team of which I was a part was tasked with an unusual mission: a shipwreck recovery. An uncrewed sailing vessel had been disabled in a storm off Cape Horn and drifted thousands of kilometers before washing up on the Auckland Islands, a remote archipelago south of New Zealand.

Along with thousands of ocean buoys, land-based weather stations, weather balloons, and a rapidly growing fleet of satellites, the shipwrecked saildrone (which was ultimately fixed and put back into service) was part of the huge network of devices that observe the world’s atmosphere, land, and ocean—the “vast machine” that Victorian-era writer John Ruskin predicted would one day enable us to forecast weather.

The torrents of data this network collects are processed by powerful computers to create weather models. Meteorologists apply their expertise and experience to these models to make weather forecasts. Data, models, and forecasts are shared among countries and made available to anyone. It’s a global system of free exchange that has prospered for 150 years.

At the heart of this vast machine is the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an intergovernmental community whose primary role is to facilitate the free and open exchange of weather data for the benefit of all humanity.

For a century and a half, WMO has been an exemplar of international cooperation. It needs to be—weather respects no borders and affects everyone on Earth. But other forces, both economic and political, surround around WMO. At a time when we perhaps need it more than ever, WMO faces big questions about its future.

From IMO to WMO

“Weather is a truly global phenomenon. In order to forecast, you can’t just know the weather in your particular country—you need to know it globally.”

“Weather is a truly global phenomenon,” said Randy Cerveny, a climatologist with Arizona State University and a WMO historian. “In order to forecast, you can’t just know the weather in your particular country—you need to know it globally.”

That knowledge requires a standardized system of measurements. With this in mind, meteorologists from a number of countries set up the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) in 1876.

“It’s an organization that was way ahead of its time,” said Cerveny. “It started out as such a basic idea—that a temperature measured in New Zealand should be taken under the same set of conditions, and with the same type of instruments, as in the United States or Great Britain.”

Such standards “seem like really simple things, but they’re hard to get agreement on,” said Paul Edwards, author of A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming.

From the start, sharing data to improve weather forecasts was fundamental to IMO’s success. Among its early achievements was the first International Polar Year (1882–1883), a coordinated study of meteorology in the high latitudes.

“The unique thing about meteorology as a science is that it’s dependent on data from a very large area,” said Edwards. “Everybody has an incentive to participate. It’s kind of like the postal service. It’s better for everyone if they let the mail cross the border.”

IMO was reorganized in 1950 as the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations (UN). WMO was to act as UN’s voice on atmospheric issues and the impacts of weather and climate.

Cooperation, the Cold War, and Climate Change

In the postwar period, it was governments, rather than meteorological services, that sent representatives to WMO. The organization became not just a scientific gathering but also a diplomatic one.

One of WMO’s early key roles was helping newly independent nations in Africa and elsewhere establish their scientific and technical capability. “There [was] a lot of effort poured into sending envoys to these new nations and helping them get set up,” said Edwards, “which is in the interest of everyone, because it means the weather data continue to flow.”

“The United Nations had to struggle with the postcolonial moment to maintain its legitimacy,” said Joshua Howe, author of Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. “One way to do that was through scientific development and knowledge-sharing programs.

“The WMO was a clear example of that. [It could] come in, build new infrastructure, coordinate existing infrastructure, and essentially give postcolonial nations in places such as Africa and Latin America a seat at the table.”

The 1950’s saw growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Cold War hostilities colored efforts such as the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958, a global push to study Earth and its atmosphere.

“The whole program revolved around scientific cooperation and information sharing,” said Howe. “But every part of it was also about competition between the U.S. and the Soviets for scientific preeminence.”

One of WMO’s landmark achievements during this time was the establishment of the World Weather Watch (WWW), a coordinated program of satellites and ground- and sea-based observing platforms that enabled the reach of forecasts to become, for the first time, truly global.

“They [got] that going long before the Internet, or any kind of computer networking in the sense we understand it today,” said Edwards. “A lot of the value that the WMO [added was] by creating techniques for sharing data—by fax and by telegraph, across really large areas—and then establishing data centers that will receive data from a region and rebroadcast [those] data to other regions.”

The development of WWW, said Andrew Blum, author of The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast, was “very much in keeping with the American technological push, the Space Race, and this period of incredible advancement where suddenly you have a new vision of how the world can be interconnected.”

“[It] was about creating a new scientific world according to American terms,” Blum said, which, against the backdrop of Cold War tensions, “[was] totally about using technology to extend influence.”

The U.S. dominance of WMO suggests a concerted effort to keep communism at bay. “The U.S. had a big stake in the UN in general,” said Howe, “as a way to shore up the Western free market nations as a bloc to counter Soviet power.”

But despite tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, “international meteorology thrived in the Cold War,” said John Zillman, former director of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and WMO president from 1994 to 2003. “The U.S. and U.S.S.R. concluded it would be in everybody’s global interest to find an area of cooperation. They focused on the use of space to improve warning of natural disasters.”

There are, after all, major economic benefits to all nations in cooperating on weather forecasting.

“I can’t, in 30 years in the WMO, recall any real situation where we didn’t have everybody’s best interests in mind.”

“Weather forecasting has enormous economic value,” said Edwards. “We get 25–50 times what we put into it back [from] farmers knowing something about what’s going to happen to their crops, transport of all kinds, air travel, shipping, and a million other things that are weather dependent.”

Because WMO is an international organization, inevitably agreement has been hard-won at times. “The price you pay for consensus,” said Zillman, “is often fairly ambiguous wording in a global decision, so that everybody can live with it.

“But on the other hand…rarely does the international meteorological community seek anything other than a mutually beneficial outcome. I can’t, in 30 years in the WMO, recall any real situation where we didn’t have everybody’s best interests in mind.”

By the 1970s, for instance, it was apparent that long-term weather patterns were shifting, and it was universally beneficial to address the issue. WMO, along with the United Nations Environment Programme, set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. Two decades later, with climate change recognized as the defining issue of our time, IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Resolution 40

WMO may have faced its greatest challenge in the 1980s, as market-oriented, conservative governments, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, put pressure on their meteorological services to recoup some of the considerable costs of gathering weather data by charging for them. This pressure coincided with the rise of private forecasting services like AccuWeather and the Weather Channel, which package government weather data for popular consumption on apps, television, and websites.

Neil Gordon was New Zealand’s representative to WMO during this period. “What was happening,” he said, “was observations from, say, France were going on international circuits into the United States to be used and ingested into weather models.… [Those data] would then go to companies like AccuWeather, who would then provide services back into France. And France was very unhappy about it. There was a risk that they would no longer send their data to the States.”

“We almost got to the point where data exchange was being shut off,” Gordon recalled.

At the Twelfth World Meteorological Congress, in 1995, urgent talk of data wars swirled. Without the free and open exchange of observational data, critics argued, the integrity and quality of global weather forecasts might be compromised. Some even feared that the ideological conflict could lead to the collapse of WMO itself.

Meetings ran late into the night as members tried to reach consensus. “The first 2 weeks were extremely tense,” recalled Zillman. “Everybody was on edge.”

Finally, a draft resolution was hammered out, encouraging WMO’s continued commitment to making essential meteorological data and products freely available, recognizing that such data “are necessary for the provision of services in support of the protection of life and property and the well-being of all nations.” When the resolution was brought before the WMO congress, “the atmosphere,” Zillman wrote, “was electric.”

Ultimately, Resolution 40 passed, to thunderous applause. “It was one of those times,” recalled Zillman, “when grown men and women almost became like children, they were so relieved.”

For the next 2 decades, Resolution 40 remained sacrosanct. “The WMO community that negotiated it got such a fright at the prospect of the collapse of international cooperation that they pretty much resolved not to touch it,” said Zillman.

Earth Systems

Today WMO has 193 members, with only 10 UN member states (mostly tiny islands and microstates lacking their own meteorological services) not part of it. Even countries the United States considers state sponsors of terrorism, including Iran and North Korea, are members.

Blum, who attended the WMO congress in 2015, said a strong American influence is still a big part of the organization’s DNA. “I was probably naive about this going in, but I hadn’t quite realized the extent to which the U.S. was the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he said.

“Instead of talking about meteorology, hydrology, and oceans as separate things, it very much makes sense to talk about ‘Earth systems.’”

WMO’s core budget is funded mostly by member contributions, which are adjusted according to each member’s ability to pay. In 2021, contributions from members totaled nearly $74 million.

Alongside the distribution of weather data, WMO’s mission includes addressing such concerns as the monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, disaster prevention, and access to fresh water.

“The WMO has gone well beyond its initial mission of collecting and collating temperature and humidity [data],” said Howe. “They’re involved in all kinds of programs that have helped us map and understand the changing climate.”

A big shift in recent years, said current secretary-general Petteri Taalas, has been movement toward a holistic view of Earth processes. “Instead of talking about meteorology, hydrology, and oceans as separate things,” he said, “it very much makes sense to talk about ‘Earth systems.’”

Monitoring these is the job of WMO’s Global Observing System (GOS). GOS includes orbiting and geostationary satellites, aircraft, ocean buoys, dedicated marine and freshwater vessels, radar networks, weather stations, and lots and lots of data processing and management.

As vast as GOS is, there are still blind spots. “We have major gaps…in African countries, Caribbean islands, and also the Pacific islands,” said Taalas.

Filling in these gaps is a big part of WMO’s current focus. Another is establishing and improving early-warning systems around the globe, which, it is hoped, will save thousands of lives from being lost to extreme weather events .

In the next few years, WMO aims to convince governments and other funding agencies to direct almost $3.5 billion toward upgrading weather forecasting services, especially in the most at-risk areas. Planned infrastructure including early-warning systems and enhanced meteorological systems in places like Afghanistan and West Africa is “a very powerful way to adapt to climate change,” said Taalas. “At the moment, only half our members have state-of-the-art weather services.”

Bapon Fakhruddin is a water management specialist and risk assessor with the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund. He has designed climate and disaster response projects in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, where he helps remote island nations prepare for increasingly severe weather events.

“Places like Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati are highly vulnerable,” he said. “Many of those countries don’t have skilled manpower that can generate their own forecasting on a local scale, and when you’re looking at severe weather forecasting, it needs to be very localized.”

Small island developing states (SIDS) typically rely on forecasting services from bigger neighbors, which might be hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away. Developing robust early-warning systems requires training staff in SIDS to build accurate local forecasts. These systems also allow countries to plan for the aftermath of a severe weather event.

Developing nations, Fakhruddin explained, usually have low capacity to bounce back from extreme weather events, “so it’s very urgent; we need to take action rapidly to help these countries.”

This, he said, is where WMO, with its globally coordinated approach, comes in. “Their job is to enhance policy, identify the gaps, and investigate how they could find [financing] to help those countries.”

Sharing data is fundamental to creating effective early-warning systems. Weather information gathered via GOS is made available to members through WMO’s Global Telecommunication System (GTS).

“We always say weather and climate and water know no boundaries. We have to cooperate.”

Australian meteorologist Sue Barrell, former vice president of the WMO Commission for Basic Systems, said the weather and climate models WMO produces “are now so well tuned to using all of the data they can get, that when some data [aren’t] available, that actually impacts the forecasts on the other side of the world. If [for example] New Zealand chose not to share its data, the weather forecasts in the United States would be poorer.”

Recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tested this culture of sharing. Russia has ceased to supply many of its weather data sets to WMO, and some European agencies have responded in kind. “So-called ‘essential’ data [are] still freely exchanged,” said Taalas, “but there are many nonessential data sets that are no longer exchanged. For example, Russia stopped delivery of weather radar data, which [are] used for short-term rainfall monitoring, 2 weeks before they started to attack Ukraine.”

Nonetheless, a Russian Federation delegate attended WMO’s 2023 Executive Council meeting in February. “We’re not a political organization,” said WMO media officer Clare Nullis. “We’re a scientific and technical organization. We always say weather and climate and water know no boundaries. We have to cooperate.”

Indeed, the chief challenge to WMO’s spirit of cooperation is not overtly political at all: In the Internet era, weather forecasting is big business.

Public-Private Partnerships

“I used to joke that the Internet was invented for meteorologists,” said Russ Murley, operations manager with Maine-based Precision Weather, one of North America’s oldest private forecasting companies.

Precision Weather takes data from the Internet,gathered mostlyfrom government sources, and runs them through its in-house computer modeling systems to create weather forecasts specific to very localized areas.

The addition of technologies like drones, home weather stations, and even smartphones allows companies like Precision to create and sell forecasts that are more accurate, at the local scale, than those supplied by the government. Among other things, Precision Weather provides tailor-made forecasting for New York’s subway system and has forecasted for events ranging from the Golden Globe Awards to actor Reese Witherspoon’s wedding.

In recent years, said Murley, private weather forecasting has risen exponentially.

It’s driven by demand: Insurance companies want to know the potential damages associated with a tropical storm long before it makes landfall, for instance. Cities want to prepare municipal services for localized snow events. Department store chains want to know whether to stock more paddling pools or puffer jackets.

At the same time, the advent of small, relatively low cost satellites and the increased availability of computers powerful enough to process the data mean that private satellite firms can now compete directly with governments to make observations and forecasts of Earth’s weather.

One such company is San Francisco–based Spire, which operates a constellation of more than a hundred satellites, each the size of a loaf of bread. Spire uses the data it collects to create its own weather models, which it says greatly increase global weather forecasting capability.

“We have unique data going into our model that other people don’t have,” said Michael Eilts, Spire’s general manager of weather and Earth intelligence.

“In data-rich areas, like over the continental United States or Australia, we probably don’t add as much value, but when you get over the open oceans, where there are very [few] other data sources, we do have a distinct advantage in our forecast capability,” Eilts added.

This capability comes as the effects of global climate change are starting to bite. “As weather becomes more extreme,” said Blum, “there’s more to gain by predicting weather, and more value in those predictions.”

Photo of the World Meteorological Organization’s headquarters
WMO, an agency of the United Nations, is headquartered in Geneva. Credit: Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although the rise of private weather forecasting may in some ways seem to threaten the value of WMO, the industry may also contribute to the organization, supporters say. The detailed, highly accurate data gathered by private companies can be combined with government data to provide more reliable models and forecasts. NOAA, for instance, now partners with a number of private weather data firms.

“What we’ve come to understand,” said John Cortinas, director of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami, “is that by working together, we can make more progress collectively than we would be able to individually.… There are new technologies that the private sector has developed in a much more rapid way than traditionally we’ve been able to do on the federal government side.”

Saildrone, for example, the company that owns the uncrewed vessel that foundered on the Auckland Islands in 2018, charters its vessels to NOAA to study hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. On two occasions, it sent drones into the middle of tropical storms, gathering never-before-available data and video that NOAA hopes will aid in forecasting hurricanes.

The data the drones collect end up on the GTS for the world to access. “That’s a perfect example of how that synergy worked well, to everyone’s benefit,” Cortinas said.

Since 2016, Spire has been selling its satellite data to NOAA, fulfilling contracts valued at $23.6 million in 2022. Eilts said the data are analyzed by both NOAA and Spire’s own scientists to improve modeling capability. “It’s a community effort. In the end, though, government forecasts are far better because of the data that we sell to them.”

But access to the high-tech world of commercial weather forecasting comes with a trade-off: Private satellite data often have restrictions on how and when they can be shared.

“We need to continually find ways to maximize the value out of the data that we collect,” said Eilts. “What’s happened so far is that NOAA has funded us…to share [Spire’s] data with researchers, but they can’t hand [those] data off to our commercial competitors.

“So that’s the game that we’re playing right now. We’re happy to sell [data] to governments. And if they want to pay a little extra so they can share [them] with a broader community, great. But we won’t let [them] become just open to the public so that other commercial companies can take our data and compete against us.”

Such restrictions in many ways run counter to WMO’s traditional “free and open” data-sharing policies, but the organization has no power to compel a private company to make data available for sharing.

“The whole system has evolved into a public-private partnership, and nobody is particularly running the show.”

“The whole system has evolved into a public-private partnership, and nobody is particularly running the show,” said Edwards. “The WMO can urge and cajole, but it can’t make any organization or country do anything.”

“You can’t have the spoils of Silicon Valley without giving them their pound of flesh,” said Blum. “We want [those] additional data, even if it means breaking some of the 150-year-old culture of data exchange.”

The price of data produced by such companies may put them out of reach of some governments—including, perhaps, those of countries at the greatest risk from climate change.

“In theory,” said Taalas, “we could have a situation where the richest countries could pay for the data and poor countries wouldn’t be able to do so.”

Barrell agreed that meteorological services, especially those from smaller member states, are being increasingly challenged. “A government would say, ‘Why do we need to invest in a met service when we can go to [the Internet] and get everything we need?’ What you lose then,” she explained, “is the investment in the long-term climate record, and the long-term skills and depth that a national meteorological service has.”

Between 2019 and 2021, in response to these pressures, Barrell led a WMO task force that for the first time in 2 decades, reassessed Resolution 40. “Resolution 40 was quite revolutionary at the time,” she said. But, echoing what Zillman noted earlier about the pitfalls of “fairly ambiguous wording” in international agreements, Barrell said the “essential meteorological data” mentioned in Resolution 40 were never specified. “Its weakness was that it didn’t actually articulate what [data] needed to be shared. It created some ambiguity.”

To address this, the task force developed the Unified Data Policy. The policy identifies “core data,” which, Barrell said, “[are] to be shared freely, without any restrictions at all,” and “recommended data, “ which WMO encourages members to share.

Core data include observations of surface atmospheric pressure, air temperature, and humidity that are deemed necessary “for the provision of services in support of the protection of life and property and for the well-being of all nations.”

Recommended data, which might include data gathered by regional weather stations, are “pretty much everything else,” Barrell said. “People can charge for [those] data, or they can put conditions on [their] use.”

“There’s also an element in [the Unified Data Policy] that says when there’s a weather disaster [like] a cyclone or other major event, we call on everyone to share their data freely,” Barrell said. “So that is a call to the private sector. It’s not written in law—it’s a moral obligation for them to be part of that community.”

WMO in a Multilateral World

When it comes to building early-warning systems, Fakhruddin, for one, is a strong advocate for creating favorable commercial environments to attract private forecasting services to at-risk areas like the Pacific. “When [countries] don’t have an observation network, [private] satellite data would help them an enormous amount,” he said.

Finding the estimated $3.5 billion needed to provide “early-warning systems for all,” he said, will not be easy. “No one global agency has that kind of money. So your best bet is how you can bring private money into the sector.”

Barrell said finding a path in which private and public interests work together will ultimately benefit everyone. “Will it work perfectly? No, nothing ever does. But I think the signs are there that the major parties involved can see the benefit.”

Zillman said he believes that the fundamental WMO ethos, which has survived for a century and a half, will ultimately ride out the storm.

“There will always be a very large public good component in international meteorology,” he said. “I think it’s entirely central to the WMO’s role to help keep the global weather enterprise working in the interests of both the public and private sectors.”

The bigger challenge WMO faces, said Howe, is redefining itself in a world very different from the one into which it was birthed. The Cold War rivalry that fueled the technological race upon which WMO built its legacy is a thing of the past. And while most countries, including China, embrace WMO philosophies, questions remain over the role the organization will play in world affairs.

“I don’t believe that private satellites are an existential threat for the WMO,” said Howe. “They’ve comprised a part of what the WMO has done.”

“More profoundly,” he continued, “I think the retraction from international governance structures within the international political economy is a more severe threat. The United Nations doesn’t have the credibility it once did. It’s not a centerpiece of global governance in the way that it hoped to be at one point. Even the IPCC has kind of run its course.

“It’s not an existential threat. It’s a relevance threat.”

And yet, despite the shifting political landscape, weather will always remain a global issue. A 2021 World Bank report concluded that improving global weather observation capability could result in socioeconomic benefits exceeding $5 billion a year. This pressing need, perhaps more than anything, is what will keep WMO intact.

“Every country that’s [been a part of WMO],” said Edwards, “has ended up saying, ‘This is a benefit, and we want to get as much as we can out of it.’ So it just has this kind of inherent planetary dimension.”

And in the face of climate change, it could be argued that the world needs WMO more than ever.

“There’s so much that we can share,” said Barrell, “in terms of adaptation, in terms of modeling, and in terms of informing policy. It really is a global community. It has to be a global solution.”

—Bill Morris, Science Writer

Citation: Morris, B. (2023), WMO weathered The Cold War, but can it survive capitalism?, Eos, 104, Published on 26 June 2023.
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