Tempers flare when meteorologists discuss commercial weather data

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This article was updated Jan. 29 with information on Alan Thorpe’s work with Spire Global. He is a scientific adviser for the weather satellite startup. This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Everyone seemed calm at the annual American Meteorological Society (AMS) conference in Phoenix, sharing research and discussing public policy, until someone mentioned commercial weather data. Suddenly voices grew louder, one speaker interrupted another and tempers flared.

The annual American Meteorological Society (AMS) conference met recently in Phoenix. Credit: AMS via Flickr
The annual American Meteorological
Society conference met recently in Phoenix. Credit: AMS via Flickr

As commercial companies expand their role in gathering and disseminating weather data, academic and government researchers are deeply concerned they will lose access to the data that fuels their work. These concerns, while not new, have been brought into sharp focus by the emergence of startups building constellations of cubesats focused on radio occultation, a valuable data set for atmospheric and space weather forecasts produced until recently by large government satellites that complied with Resolution 40, the World Meteorological Organization’s policy of free and unrestricted data exchange.

“The occultation measurement is an example of a range of offerings that are going to come forward particularly as it becomes cheaper to build miniature instruments and satellites and launch them,” said Alan Thorpe, former European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts director general and a scientific adviser to Spire Global, a startup with 72 small weather satellites in orbit. “It’s possible for small and medium enterprises to take part in what before required big companies launching very expensive satellites.”

Thorpe and Jack Hayes, former director of the U.S. National Weather Service, spoke at AMS about a new nonprofit organization designed to calm emotions and encourage dialogue called the Global Weather Enterprise Forum.

The Global Weather Enterprise Forum currently has 12 members, four each from the public, private and academic sectors. Since its first meeting April 2018, the members have met roughly every three months. A coordination group supporting the forum’s work includes representatives of the Association of the Hydro-Meteorological Equipment Industry, the World Bank Group, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the International Council for Science.

“The forum is about enabling the sectors to work more effectively and collaboratively,” Thorpe said. “We need to build trust between the public, private and academic sectors. That is one of the most important yet most difficult things to do.”

Before the World Meteorological Congress meets in Geneva in June, the Global Weather Enterprise Forum will try to agree on recommendations for augmenting observations and improving access to weather data.

“I’m not going to guarantee you that this is going to succeed,” Hayes said, “but I’m going to guarantee you that there’s no alternative but to move forward, risk failure and try and change the status quo. Because the bottom line here is we have growing impacts from weather and we have science and technology that could help us do something about them.”

The Global Weather Data Forum is particularly concerned with supporting developing countries “where knowledge, expertise and access to information lags well behind,” Thorpe said. “There are big data gaps and that has a real impact on lives in those countries. Engagement between sectors is even more critical because a national weather service in a small developing country may find it hard to deliver information without partnerships and engagement.”

To assist those countries, the Global Weather Enterprise Forum is looking for ways “to incentivize countries to make the maximum amount of observations and put them in the exchange,” Thorpe said.

One of the thornier questions the Forum is tackling is the one that raised concerns at the AMS meeting. What happens to free data policies when private companies gather and distribute more weather data? Is it time to update Resolution 40?

“That was decided many years ago and there are lots of people who recognize it needs to be updated for current and future conditions,” Thorpe said. “It’s about policy, regulation and business models because all data, all observations have to be paid for. How can that be done in a way that enables all those people who need observations to get a hold of them?”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is wrestling with the same question as it evaluates the utility of radio occultation soundings gathered private firms participating in its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program.

“We derive value from observations when we directly assimilate them into a model and they improve the predictive output,” Karen St. Germain, systems architecture and advanced planning director for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said in a November interview. “Another way we derive value is by sharing the data with, for example, our European colleagues and they likewise share their data with us. We don’t characterize it as a barter system but it effectively doubles the volume of data.”

At the same time, private companies raising money to build and launch small weather satellites will only remain in business if they are profitable.

“We have to make a return on investment for our shareholders and therefore we have to generate revenue from the observations that we take,” Stephane Germain, president of GHGSat, a Canadian firm that launched its first greenhouse gas monitoring satellite in 2016 and is building two more, said in a recent interview. “That being said, we are working on creative models to make data available to qualified third parties, people who can help us validate our system, people who combine our data with third party data such as from NASA and ESA satellites to better inform climate change models. When it’s done for public policy or academic research purposes, we are open to making that data available. But all those ideas have to come together in a way that makes sense for the business.”

It’s too soon to tell how government agencies, companies and academic researchers will work this out. As those discussions continue, though, the Global Weather Enterprise Forum is seeking to cool tempers and restore calm.