Weather Stations Underpin Effective Climate Action—We Need More of Them | Opinion

Weather forecasts save lives. Every year, millions of people are evacuated to safety thanks to early-warning systems that can predict the path of a hurricane, the intensity of floods and the risk of wildfires. But weather systems are becoming more erratic. Climate change has increased both the severity and the frequency of extreme weather. We need more accurate and timely data to understand how our weather systems are changing—data that is needed to continue saving lives.

Yet the global map of weather stations looks much like our planet at night: The brightly lit conurbations of Europe and North America show in sharp contrast to the darkness engulfing Africa and much of Latin America, polar regions and the vast expanse of our oceans. What is more, those dark, data-less regions have got darker as investment in the upkeep of weather stations has dried up, particularly during the pandemic.

The shortfall in weather data undermines the science that underpins early warning systems and effective climate action. It robs the poorest regions of the world, already on the frontlines of climate change, of data that could pave the way for much-needed weather-related services, such as crop insurance, as well as effective early warning systems.

When we consider the scale of the climate challenges facing humanity, the weather data gap is both worrying and unacceptable. Only 40 percent of the World Meteorological Organization's 187 member states report having an early warning system in place, meaning that one in three people globally get no advanced warning of hurricanes, floods and other calamities that might be heading their way. This explains why 410,000 people have perished in weather-related disasters over the past decade, the vast majority in less-developed countries. For the world's poorest, access to timely, accurate weather data is, without exaggeration, a matter of life and death.

In addition to disaster mitigation, accurate weather forecasting is essential for food production, for managing solar and wind energy demand and supply, for predicting the availability of water for irrigation, dams and hydropower plants, for anticipating the impact of complex weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña and for preparing for heatwaves.

Having more weather stations in developing countries matters for the rest of the world, too, because the accuracy of weather forecasting models depends on collecting data from as many locations as possible. For accurate five-day weather forecasts, you need multiple data points from all over the globe. Better weather data is needed to shape climate policy, to prevent weather-related disasters and to inform us on how we adapt to our warming planet.

While it is important to continue improving our weather and climate models, and to give more people access to timely weather information, we need to ensure that we also invest in gathering and sharing more weather data. This means investing in more weather observation stations, particularly in least-developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS).

Financing for Weather Stations

Thirty institutions in the international development and climate finance community are now working to build more weather stations in data-sparse regions. An estimated $400 million is needed over five years to build 1,500 new weather stations in 67 LDCs and SIDS, and to refurbish some 8,000 stations that are "silent"—no longer transmitting information—or have fallen into disrepair.

A man looks at a weather map. RICHARD BOUHET/AFP via Getty Images

After that, some $50 million a year will be needed to fund their operation and maintenance. Hopefully, countries will turn their attention toward weather station building by the time the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow begins in November.

Triple Dividend

The benefits of accurate weather prediction are measurable and significant. They help prevent human and material loss, and generate economic value in addition to significant social and environmental benefits—a "triple dividend" worth up to 25 times every dollar invested, according to the World Bank.

The benefits include better disaster management, which saves $66 billion a year, according to the World Bank, $33 billion a year in avoided agricultural losses, $29 billion in efficiency gains in the energy industry and $2 billion a year in lower fuel costs for the aviation industry. Rerouting to avoid bad weather, meanwhile, saves shipping $8 billion a year. In all, the World Bank estimates weather prediction services contribute $162 billion a year to the global economy, or about 0.2 percent of global GDP.

Public Good

Weather data is a public good. Every climate forecast, every disaster mitigated, every flight or ship that has ever been rerouted, every order to ramp up or shut down electricity production, every planting and harvest decision, is informed by weather data. The WMO has worked hard to ensure that this information is both free and universally shared.

John Zillman, a former WMO president, regarded meteorological cooperation as the best model "the world has yet devised of nations, organizations and scientific disciplines working together for the common good."

We must hold fast to this spirit of cooperation as we deal with the growing climate challenges facing humanity. We must not forget that our ability to shape policy, adapt to climate change and protect millions of lives from extreme weather events begins at the humble weather station. If we build more of them, large swathes of our planet will still be pitch black at night, but it will be buzzing with round-the-clock weather observations that help protect life on Earth.

Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation.

Ban Ki-moon is eighth secretary-general of the United Nations and chair of the Global Center on Adaptation.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.