Andrew Blum’s most recent book is The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast.
We still gripe about high-profile forecast screw-ups – and still get caught in the rain – but the work of meteorologists today is more accurate, further in advance, than ever before. They use the word “skill” to describe their ability and, generally speaking, they have improved “a day a decade.” That means today’s five-day forecast is as good as 2009’s four-day forecast – and 1989’s two-day. This trajectory shows no sign of slowing, thanks to continual incremental improvements in the instruments that measure the weather from satellites and on Earth, as well as the supercomputer simulations of the atmosphere known as weather models. The largest of them take in hundreds of millions of observations each day, collected from weather stations around the globe, an international fleet of satellites in orbit, sensors on planes and buoys and – increasingly – new kinds of data extracted from the ubiquitous veil of our technological devices, such as mobile phones and GPS satellites. The weather forecast depends on “a genuinely global infrastructure that produces genuinely global information,” as the historian Paul Edwards describes it.
But this globe-spanning apparatus doesn’t become global by itself. Since 1873, the world’s meteorologists have been coming together to work out the terms of their exchange. In the early days, everything was up for discussion. “What is the best form, size and mode of exposure of rain gauges?” they fretted at one of the first meetings of what was then called the International Meteorological Organization. At what hour of the day should rainfall be measured? Can uniform times of observations be introduced? In what way should the proportion of cloud in the sky be estimated and indicated? In the years after the Second World War, the IMO was reconstituted as the World Meteorological Organization and put under the umbrella of the United Nations. Every four years in Geneva, and dozens of smaller conferences in between, the world’s meteorologists keep at sweating the details. The WMO has a secretary-general, who works at headquarters to implement the policies of Congress. It’s up to the president – an unpaid position – to get them to agree. Until recently, the president was a Canadian.
“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,” David Grimes calls, sitting at a dais festooned with a banner of clouds, banging his maple gavel. In the main hall of the Palais des Congrès in Geneva, meteorologists from all over the world sit behind plastic nameplates printed with their place of origin – 193 states and territories, at last count. Last month, the 67-year-old concluded eight years as the WMO’s president – while keeping his day job as the director of Canada’s weather service, the assistant deputy Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada. The weather forecast depends on diplomacy, and Mr. Grimes has been weather’s chief diplomat in an era of remarkable innovation and success.
He works with a profound conviction about the possibilities for consensus, which he wields with a temperamental niceness. At the two-week-long WMO congress, he leads nearly every session, working through the queue of delegates who have pressed a button on the simultaneous translation consoles in front of them, indicating their desire to speak. When there are disagreements, Mr. Grimes never addresses them head-on but instead moves to the next country in the queue. “Is that okay?” he asks, hopefully, of a counterpoint. “Acceptable? Okay.” Occasionally he defers, knowing that things either have to keep moving or there are other battles to fight. “I don’t know the appropriateness of having this in the resolution,” he gently pushes, on a matter of slim detail. “It’s not ‘if it is or isn’t,’” he says. “It’s, ‘does it belong here or does it belong there?’” Every couple of hours, he leads the hall in a “seventh-inning stretch,” a provincial suggestion that always gets a laugh.
Weather diplomacy is a subtle art, combining a technical knowledge of infrastructure and a political ear to its effects. “It’s not like you’re herding people, but you’re listening, and then you want to capture all of the diversity of what’s said,” Mr. Grimes explains, in an interview between sessions at congress. “Is there something they’re all saying that is the same?"
But there isn’t always. At the 2015 WMO congress, and at the most recent one last month, fault lines could be seen between nations that threaten to shake the 150-year-tradition of weather diplomacy. A combination of new technology, new commercial interests and new weather are creating new dynamics. If once the system of data exchange was many-to-many, with the weather services of all countries collecting observations and writing their own forecasts, today, the complexity and breadth of the system has created a new hierarchy. Only a handful of the largest countries have the expertise and budgets to run their own weather models and satellites, leaving smaller countries dependent on their outputs. Inevitably, those countries are often also the most effected by new extremes of weather. “We’re in a regime right now where whatever the causes are, the effects are having catastrophic consequences on societies,” Mr. Grimes says. ”There’s a social injustice with extreme events. They attack the most vulnerable – and that’s worldwide.”
The WMO, and the global infrastructure it represents, is a true public good, an organization comprised of government weather services, offering services to their people. From the first meeting in 1873, meteorologists have come together "and said, ‘You know, we can’t solve this problem unless we work together,’” Mr. Grimes says. “The capabilities we have could not be amassed in any one country.” Practically speaking, the key to that has been the free and open exchange of government-produced weather data and forecasts – a policy most recently codified in the 1990s, by a WMO document known as Resolution 40. But as new types of data have emerged from new sources – such as smartphone sensors, privately operated satellites and instruments installed on airliners – the willingness to share that data has been called into question.
For governments in the business of providing weather warnings to their citizens, that exchange was unchallenged. But to corporations eager to sell their data to more than one customer, the free exchange of data between governments is anathema.
“’Make or buy’ is a national decision,” Mr. Grimes says of the creation of this data by weather services, or its purchase from private companies. But sharing it is a foundational principle of the WMO. If each country had to buy its own weather data, there might only 10 or 15 that could afford it, Mr. Grimes worries.
His challenge has been to encourage a discussion of how best to harness and encourage new types of data, without threatening the international structures that put it to work. “These smart technologies should be introduced, but we need a policy that recognizes the vital importance of how that information is shared amongst all nations,” Mr. Grimes says. The benefit for both the few and the many is self-evident. “I gain more than I give – even though I’m a pretty good giver,” Mr. Grimes says of Canada’s contribution to the global system. “And WMO is all about us giving a bit to gain a whole lot back.”
But the policies of the Trump administration have complicated the issue (like so many others). Donald Trump’s nominee to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Barry Myers, has been a lightning rod for criticism because of his past efforts at privatizing aspects of the National Weather Service. Mr. Myers remains unconfirmed by the U.S. Senate, but his acting deputy, Neil Jacobs, has expressed similar eagerness to prioritize the activities of the private sector. That could be seen as merely the business of the United States, not the world, but at the WMO this year, Louis Uccellini, director of the American weather service, stood as a candidate to replace Mr. Grimes as WMO president – the first time an American would have served in the role since the earliest days of the WMO in the 1950s. Dr. Uccellini’s bid was perceived by many as an attempt to extend the Trump administration’s priorities to the international stage – with the need to accommodate the interests of the private sector high among them.
But the foundations of international exchange held firm. In an election on June 13 in Geneva, Dr. Uccellini lost to Dr. Gerhard Adrian, director of the German weather service, die Deutsche Wetterdienst. Even in the stiff-lipped realm of the WMO, the defeat was a quiet reckoning: a rejection of U.S. priorities and an affirmation of Mr. Grimes’s eight years of work bringing the members together. “#MultilateralismMatters,” the German Mission to Geneva tweeted.
For Mr. Grimes, it was some assurance – at least for the next four years – of his assiduous efforts toward consensus. “I don’t want to brag, but I think I had a very successful presidency for the last eight years,” he reflects. “I spent a lot of time listening to what was truly pulling at the strings of all of the members.”
Above all, there is a growing sense of urgency among the world’s meteorologists, that in a new era of weather extremes, their capabilities are needed more than ever. For Mr. Grimes and his successor, the challenge is to maintain their time-honoured global infrastructure as a coherent and equal system – rather than seeing it bifurcated by private corporations into different weather forecasts for the haves and have-nots. “Journeys are not made by one, they are made by many,” Mr. Grimes told his WMO colleagues in a farewell ceremony. They heralded him with a standing ovation. “It’s been us as a community,” he said.