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David Grimes, president of the World Meteorological Organization.

Environment Canada/Environment Canada

David Grimes has forecast the weather in blustery Halifax, frigid Winnipeg and rainy Vancouver.

He's headed Canada's Meteorological Service since 2006, presiding over a time of pronounced droughts, devastating floods and raucous debates over global warming. When Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake, tsunami and radiation leak two months ago, he monitored for potential harm to Canadian shores and air.

Now Mr. Grimes, a 35-year veteran of Environment Canada, is preparing for a lofty new role: In less than two weeks, he will become the world's weatherman.

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He began campaigning for the job of president of the World Meteorological Organization two years ago. He won the position in a vote in Geneva on Wednesday, and takes over from Alexander Bedritskiy of Russia on June 6.

Mr. Grimes, 59, will be the first Canadian to serve as president of the 61-year-old organization. As president, Mr. Grimes will help shape the world's agenda for research and services related to weather, climate and water. His role includes building consensus among WMO member nations.

The WMO, an arm of the United Nations, facilitates exchange of climate data among countries and promotes co-operation in establishing networks among its 189 member states and territories to observe the Earth's atmosphere. It also provides information that helps countries predict and warn of natural disasters.

Farmers use weather forecasts to plan when to seed crops. Pilots rely on up-to-date conditions to land planes. Many of us constantly check for the latest weather prediction, whether it's to decide what to wear or where to go for the weekend.

Mr. Grimes's mandate at the WMO will span four years. He'll perform the job from Ottawa and remain with Environment Canada. He plans to place a greater focus on polar regions, including advocating within the WMO for better weather monitoring and information services in the North.

"This emphasis toward the pole has not been mainstreamed in the WMO. They've been more focused on tropical meteorology and tropical storms and hurricanes," Mr. Grimes said in a phone interview from Geneva. "Those are important, but we need to know what's going on in the polar regions and what's changing," he added.

"These are areas where we're seeing, from a science point of view, very significant changes."

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The WMO also plays an important role in advising governments on how to protect life and property from natural disasters, such as the current flooding in Manitoba and Quebec, the torrent of tornadoes sweeping across the U.S. Midwest or the clouds of volcanic ash from Iceland. It has many other key functions, too.

Developing countries

Many of the world's poorest countries have scant meteorological forecasting capacity. The WMO is working to narrow this gap, tapping countries such as Canada and the United States to share their global climate models with developing nations. Without sufficient historical information, poor countries struggle to assess climate-related risks, Mr. Grimes said.

Aviation

Weather-forecasting methods at airports vary around the globe. The aviation industry has been calling for uniform standards, which the WMO plans to draft. No takeoff or landing mishaps have been traced to inadequate weather monitoring, but the risk is real, Mr. Grimes said. "In some countries, the standards are not the same, either because the individuals writing the forecast are not very well qualified or … the quality of their weather instruments or monitoring is not the same" from country to country, he noted.

Telecommunications

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Real-time data are crucial to making weather-related decisions, particularly when natural disasters strike. The forecasting system, however, requires modernization to connect all countries better. Mr. Grimes cited this year's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan as an example. Canada's Meteorological Service was responsible for keeping tabs on radiation-dispersion forecasts and informing Health Canada of the level of risk. To do so properly, the agency needed instant data from Japan, China, Russia and other countries. Modernization will help information flow more easily, a goal of the WMO.

Monitoring

The WMO is also developing a new observational network for the world's weather, mainly because there are a lot more satellites in space these days. The enhanced monitoring system integrated information gathered from satellites and instruments in the ocean with traditional methods such as airport-weather gathering. This should improve forecasting, Mr. Grimes said, including of major flood events.

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