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WMO makes climate data sharing mandatory in landmark step

Hurricane Ida seen from the International Space Station as it orbited above the Gulf of Mexico in August 2021. (Credit: NASA).

Governments agreed this week to exchange climate and weather data freely in a landmark decision at the World Meteorological Congress, which has been meeting this month in Geneva.

After four years of negotiations, the 193 member countries of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) adopted a resolution making it mandatory for them to collect certain information in their territories and share it with fellow members. 

The WMO, which coordinates the data exchange between its members, hadn’t updated its policy since its adoption in 1995 and was in urgent need of getting up to speed with scientific and technological developments as well as the worsening impacts of climate change.

Why it’s important.  

Humidity, temperature as well as wind speed and direction are among the most basic measures needed to forecast the weather, making it key to prepare for disasters such as droughts, floods and hurricanes. 

As such extreme weather events worsen due to global warming, countries have become more open to cooperating to tackle climate challenges.

“The atmosphere doesn't have any borders,” Lars Peter Riishojgaard, director of the WMO’s Earth system branch, told Geneva Solutions.

“Weather and climate are global phenomena, and what this means for computer models is that you need to start with a model that includes the entire global atmosphere,” he said.

Models use information from as far back as the 1850s to understand and predict climate change patterns, however there are huge voids in certain regions such as Africa and the Pacific Ocean, where data is collected and exchanged sporadically.

“Many developing countries don't have either the technical or the financial resources to actually [collect data] to the fullest extent. And some countries have the technical and financial resources, but have been reluctant to share the information that they have,” Riishojgaard explained.

The regulation adopted will require countries to locally collect certain key measurements that satellites cannot provide, including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction at least up to 20 km in altitude as well as surface pressure, which will have to be taken every 200km every hour.

“If you are in a small country, the observations that are most important for your weather forecasts typically are not taken in your own country. They're taken from the neighbouring country where the weather is coming from on that particular day,” Riishojgaard said.

“We get a phenomenal amount of information from satellites that obviously covers the whole globe but there are certain key measurements that you cannot make from space and surface pressure is one of them,” he added.

While countries finally agreed to exchange certain information, there is some more politically sensitive data that they are not ready to disclose. 

Hydrological data, such as precipitation and water flow, tend to be sensitive topics, he noted. Water is typically a source of political tension in many areas. Although there are hundreds of shared watercourses worldwide, only a few have cooperation agreements between the host countries.

“The political discussion around hydrological data is very difficult,” he added, noting that there is a growing recognition of the need to collaborate around water. 

While the agreed text only specifically mentions certain weather and climate measurements, it makes a broader reference to other types of data, including from oceans, space, ice and water, opening the doors for future agreements on other topics. 

“Precipitation patterns are one of the big uncertainties and it will drive food security for many countries,” he added. 

As a next step, the WMO will work on proposing a regulation for the exchange of precipitation patterns and CO2 emissions measurements between its members. 

While Riishojgaard hopes that the organisation will have a proposal ready for the next time the congress is convened in 2023, getting all countries to agree will be an uphill battle. 

“It has taken us 70 years to get to this point, so it's not something that is quick and easy but I think we, in a sense, have made a breach in the world,” he said.

Countries to agree on financing mechanism

Another key obstacle which was at the heart of WMO discussions on Wednesday was financing. The countries are expected to create a financing mechanism that would allow developing countries to access the information from computer models for free.

The existing computer models are run by the powerful economies, including the US, Canada, the UK, the EU, Australia, China and Japan. 

Currently, only the poorest countries can access the service for free, while middle and low income countries have to pay for the service. The financing scheme will be run by the WMO, the UN Environment Programme and the UN Development Programme, and a handful of wealthy countries will foot the bill, with a group of Nordic countries including the Netherlands to lead. Others like Switzerland, the US and the UK are also considering pitching in.

The aim is to raise roughly $400 million for a five year run, and the WMO is expecting to announce the first $50 million at the COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow in November.