Reflecting on the success of 150 years of international data exchange, WMO secretary-general Prof. Petteri Taalas stresses the importance of urgent and unified climate action, today
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the International Meteorological Organization – the forerunner to the World Meteorological Organization. It is also the 60th anniversary of World Weather Watch, which is arguably just as important in our daily lives as the better-known World Wide Web.
We are the second oldest UN agency and are proud that we have set a gold standard for international cooperation. For the past 150 years national meteorological and hydrological services (NMHS) have collected and standardized data that underpins the weather forecasts we now take for granted. The history of WMO data exchange is a success story of scientific collaboration and coordination to save lives and livelihoods.
This year, the WMO community celebrates the many achievements of the meteorological community and looks ahead to opportunities and challenges. We started life in an era of Morse code and telegrams for shipping forecasts. Supercomputers and satellite technology are opening up new horizons for ever-more reliable weather and climate prediction as part of an integrated Earth System approach.
The Meteorological Technology World Expo 2023, taking place in Geneva on October 3, 4 and 5, will showcase many of the huge technological and forecasting advances since the birth of the IMO in Vienna on September 5, 1873.
Early Warnings for All
The decision making World Meteorological Congress met in May 2023 and approved future strategic priorities to promote our vision of a world that is more resilient to extreme weather, climate, water and other environmental events.
WMO’s overriding top priority is the UN Early Warnings for All initiative, announced by UN secretary-general António Guterres on World Meteorological Day 2022. We have received very strong support from developed and developing countries alike. The UN Early Warnings for All action plan was launched during the World Leaders Summit at the UN 2022 Climate Change Conference, COP27, and will be a key component of both the Climate Ambition Summit in New York in September 2023 and COP28, which takes place in Abu Dhabi in December.
The Early Warnings for All action plan calls for initial new targeted investments of US$3.1bn to ensure that everyone on Earth is protected against dangerous weather by 2027.
This may sound a lot, but it is the equivalent of just US$0.50 per person per year and the investment would be dwarfed by the benefits. This is only about 6% of the requested US$50bn in adaptation financing. It would cover disaster risk knowledge, observations and forecasting, preparedness and response, and the communication of early warnings.
WMO is partnering with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to advance different pillars of the initiative.
An initial 30 countries have been selected for priority action, but obviously we will seek to accelerate progress in many other countries.
The need is urgent. The number of recorded disasters has increased by a factor of five since 1970, driven in part by human-induced climate change and more extreme weather. This trend is expected to continue. Low-lying and highly populated urban areas are especially vulnerable, especially given that many hazards have a compound and cascading effect.
Advances in forecasting, coordinated early warnings and early action have successfully slashed the number of deaths in the past 50 years. That was illustrated with Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which hit Madagascar and Mozambique twice early this year, and Cyclone Mocha, which hit vulnerable communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh in May. The socioeconomic impacts were massive, but casualties were relatively limited because of accurate and timely warnings.
Just 24 hours’ notice of an impending hazardous event can cut the ensuing damage by 30%. The Global Commission on Adaptation found that spending just US$800m on such systems in developing countries would avoid losses of US$3bn to US$16bn per year.
Early warnings work – but they must work for everyone. Half of WMO members still do not have adequate multihazard early warning systems and we need to fill the gaps in the basic observing system, especially in least-developed countries and small island developing states.
Early warnings are the low-hanging fruit of climate change adaptation – which is no longer a luxury but a must. According to the World Economic Forum, in the next 10-year timeframe, failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate change adaptation and natural disasters are the highest risks for the global economy.
At least half of all disasters are water-related. At the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York, March 22-24, WMO demonstrated how water-related hazards such as floods and droughts are increasing. Climate change and the melting of glaciers will also lead to more water stress. Better water monitoring and management are essential and this is why WMO is working on a Global Water Information System to promote free exchange of hydrological data.
Greenhouse gas monitoring
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. How we respond to that challenge will determine the future of our planet for our children and grandchildren. This was highlighted in the Synthesis of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The global average temperature is more than 1.1°C higher than it was when the IMO was founded 150 years ago. The developing El Niño means that it is highly likely that one of the next five years, and indeed the whole five-year period, will be the warmest on record. And there is a 66% chance of temporarily – not permanently – exceeding the 1.5°C threshold in the next five years. Our weather is more extreme, our oceans are warmer and more acidic, sea levels have risen, and glaciers and ice are melting. The rate of change is accelerating. Atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases remain at record levels, yet there is currently no comprehensive, timely international exchange of surface and space-based greenhouse gas observations.
To fill the void, the World Meteorological Congress approved a sustained and coordinated Global Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Infrastructure. It would expand and consolidate WMO’s long-standing activities in greenhouse gas monitoring under the auspices of the Global Atmosphere Watch and the Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System.
But there are still uncertainties, especially regarding the role in the carbon cycle of the ocean, the land biosphere and the permafrost areas. We therefore need to undertake greenhouse gas monitoring within an integrated Earth system framework to be able to account for natural sources and sinks, both as they currently operate and as they will change as a result of a changing climate. This will provide vital information and support for implementation of the Paris Agreement.
WMO would coordinate efforts within a collaborative international framework, to leverage all existing greenhouse gas monitoring capabilities – space-based and surface-based observing systems, all relevant modeling and data assimilation capabilities – in an integrated, operational framework, according to the resolution.
Many of the existing international and national activities dealing with greenhouse gases are supported mainly by the research community. At present there is no comprehensive, timely international exchange of surface and space-based greenhouse gas observations or modeling products.
The concept is based on the highly successful World Weather Watch, which was ushered in at the start of the satellite era.
Satellites and supercomputers have revolutionized weather forecasting. The future is exciting – we are looking to promote kilometer-scale climate modeling to better simulate cloud physics, future flooding and drought risks and, for instance, the speed of Antarctic glacier melting. There is a need for a consortium of countries with high-performance computer resources to respond to this requirement in the near future.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Meteorological Technology International. To view the magazine in full, click here.