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by John W Zillman
The past decade has witnessed an explosive growth in meteorological services provided for
the benefit of the community at large and a generally increased awareness of the value of
public weather services for day to day decision- making in every country and every sector of
society. Enormous progress in the scientific, technological and public policy dimensions of
the provision of public weather services has produced unprecedented levels of community
interest in weather information and established the delivery of public weather services as one
of the most important, if not already the most important, function of a National
Meteorological Service (NMS). Although the basic role of the NMS in the provision of
public weather services is underpinned by a sound economic and public policy framework,
and is not seriously in doubt, the next few decades will present formidable challenges to
NMSs and the global meteorological enterprise as a whole in identifying the best way
forward through the maze of issues that now confront them. The World Meteorological
Organization (WMO) has a vital role to play in charting the way ahead and the WMO Public
Weather Services Programme will provide the framework for the co-ordinated international
effort on the provision of public weather services that is certain to bring unprecedentedly
large benefits to the global community over the next few decades.
There has always been an intense human fascination with the weather – what it’s been, what
it’s like, what’s causing it, and what it’s going to do – that stretches across the generations
and across cultures, life-styles, occupations and stages of life. Everyone wants to know about
the weather and, at the start of the twenty- first century, everyone in every country expects to
have access to reliable public weather services.
The concern with the weather and what it might mean for the daily routine is well
documented even back to hunter-gatherer times when the family group or tribal community
could be expected to include at least one member who specialised in the weather – not quite a
“National Meteorological Service” because the concept of the Nation State was still far into
the future, but at least a “Community Meteorological Service” - whose task it was to keep an
eye on the sky and help factor the weather into the plans for the day.
The records of the early civilisations of Australia, China, Egypt and Greece, among others,
are rich in allusions to the public importance of the weather. Already by 340 BC, Aristotle
had completed his remarkably comprehensive (if, by modern standards, not very scientific)
“Meteorologica” which was to serve for almost 2 000 years as the definitive treatise on the
weather - not just for Greece but for most of the known world.
Although it does not appear that “the first scientist”, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), paid
nearly as much attention in his “Book of Rains” to developing a basis for predicting the
weather as he did for water and the estimation of river flows (White, 2000), already by the
time of Hooke and Newton (Gleick, 2003) in the seventeenth century, the combination of
instrument s (eg Hooke’s weather clock – Frisinger (1977)), theory (eg Newton’s Principia –
Hawking (2002)) and the ubiquitous impact of weather and climate on everyone’s lives,
triggered a new wave of progress that was to place meteorology, for the first of a number of
occasions over the following centuries, at the forefront of publicly useful predictive science.
But the greatest step forward , and, in many respects, the birth of “public weather services’
came with the initiative of Matthew Fontaine Maury in convening the 1853 Brussels
Conference on meteorological data collection (Maury, 1963) and the remarkable
achievements of Admiral Robert Fitzroy in the United Kingdom (Gribbin and Gribbin, 2003)
and Professor Cleveland Abbe in the United States (Cox, 2002) in laying the foundation for
operational synoptic meteorology and the provision of weather forecasts for the safety and
convenience of all. Perhaps the most profound assessment of the future of public weather
services came in a letter from Cleveland Abbe in Cincinnati to his father in New York, soon
after he began issuing daily weather forecasts for a number of cities in the United States in
1869 “I have started that which the country will not willingly let die”.
The progress over the following decades was not entirely smooth. Despite the substantial
public appetite for weather information, the “scientific” reaction against the issue of daily
weather forecasts to the public became so intense in London that the, by then, first Director
General of the UK Meteorological Office, Admiral Fitzroy, took his own life - while his
counterpart in the US, Mark W Harrington, spent his final years in an asylum for the insane
(Cox, 2002).
The mood of caution and scepticism on the appropriateness and value of a scientific
institution involving itself in public weather forecasting carried through, to some extent and
in some places, to the early decades of the twentieth century. Looking back towards the end
of his career, the great British meteorologist Sir Napier Shaw (Shaw, 1939) observed that:
“The stress of service has hampered the progress of the science. Apart from the
opportunity which it gives to what may be called rash speculation or imposture, it
places the science in an awkward position. It is the habit of scientific folk who work
in the seclusion of a laboratory to draw inferences from their experience and arrange
experiments to test them; but to publish their inferences before they have been tested
by experiment is, to say the least, unusual. It is not done in the best scientific circles
as it provokes remarks about meteorology not being an exact science, meaning that its
predictions (like those of any other science) are not always correct. Yet that sort of
premature announcement is what the forecaster has to make; the stress of necessity
overrides the laws of conduct,” and concluded, with only thinly disguised regret,
“In a properly regulated world (the meteorologist) might have continued the practice,
adopted by the Meteorological Committee of the Royal Society from 1867 to 1879 and
confined his attention to accounting for the recorded sequence of events…..”
In other parts of the world, the attitude was more upbeat. Conscious of the high level of
public interest in the work of Robert Ellery, Henry Russell, Sir Charles Todd and the
charismatic Clement Wragge in pre-Federation Australia, the government of the infant nation
put weather forecasting high on its legislative agenda. The case for establishment of a
National Meteorological Service providing public services for the benefit of all sectors of the
community could not have been more eloquently put than in the debate in the Australian
Parliament on the Meteorology Act of 1906 (Zillman, 2001).
“To obtain an accurate meteorological system throughout Australia, the government
would be justified in incurring almost any expenditure. To all sections of the
community the matter is one of great importance – to those interested in commerce,
transportation, navigation, agriculture and trade of all descriptions. In short, it
concerns everybody whose living and comfort depend upon the seasons and upon the
As the global meteorological networks and the scientific basis of weather forecasting were
gradually built up through the first half of the twentieth century (Davies, 1990) the
importance of reliable daily weather information for farmers, sailors and the “man in the
street” was evident in the general level of support for the establishment and operation of what
were to become the National Meteorological Services of almost every country on every
continent and the many small island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific. But the focus in
the middle decades of the century was primarily on meteorological services for civil aviation
and, in the early years of operation of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO),
relatively little attention was paid to the issues associated with the provision of public
weather services at the national level.
But then came a number of pioneering studies on the “value of the weather” (Gibbs, 1964;
Maunder, 1970) and a generation of National Meteorological Service Directors (eg Hallgren,
1993) with a growing conviction that the provision of weather services for the safety and
general welfare of the community at large is, in many respects, the most important task of a
National Meteorological Service – a conviction which led on to the 1991 establishment of the
WMO Public Weather Services Programme (WMO, 1991).
Despite the rich history of the individual National Meteorological Services and National
Hydrometeorological Services (for both of which the abbreviation NMS is now used) of most
of the Member States and Territories of the WMO, surprisingly little has been written about
the NMS in a generic sense. Indeed, it has only been in the last decade that the WMO
community have become completely comfortable with the term, preferring earlier to keep
things a little vague by using the terminology of “meteorological service” to refer to the
service and Meteorological Service or “national Meteorological Service” to refer to the
organisation that provided it. It is also only over the past decade or so that the WMO, as an
organisation, has felt it appropriate to explore issues that were previously seen as being of a
strictly domestic nature such as the legal basis of operation of individual NMSs, their
different organisational models, funding structures and so on.
Although WMO sponsored the preparation of a number of “guidelines” on various aspects of
the operation of NMSs during the 1990s (eg WMO, 1993; 1997; 1999a), one of the first
attempts to provide an overall view of the role and operation of the generic NMS was a
general descriptive paper prepared for the WMO Bulletin with input and advice from some
40-50 NMS Directors over the period 1995-99 (Zillman, 1999). This was followed by the
“Gene va Declaration of the Thirteenth World Meteorological Congress” (WMO 1999b)
which reaffirmed “the vital importance of the mission of national Meteorological and
Hydrometeorological Services in observing and understanding weather and climate and in
providing meteorological and related services in support of national needs”. This lead on to
the establishment of an “Executive Council Advisory Group on the Role and Operation of
National Meteorological and Hydrological Services” (subsequently re-established, following
the Fourteenth World Meteorological Congress, and now chaired by the President of WMO,
Dr A Bedritsky) and the publication of both an Executive Council “Statement on the Role
and Operation of National Meteorological Services” (WMO, 2003) and the findings of a
comprehensive questio nnaire, carried out in 2000-01, into many aspects of the role, structure,
resourcing and operation of NMSs (Zillman, 2004).
The following summary picture of the early twenty-first century NMS is drawn from these
and other sources, including a number of recent reviews of individual NMSs.
Purpose, missions and goals.
The ultimate purpose of all NMSs is to contribute to the economic, social and environmental
benefit and welfare of their national communities through the provision of meteorological
and related science and services.
The overall mission of an NMS is to observe, understand and predict the weather and climate
of its country and to provide meteorological and related services in support of its national
needs and international obligations. It thus involves an essentially five- fold mission of
monitoring, research, modelling, service provision and international co-operation.
The purpose and mission of an NMS can be usefully elaborated in terms of its contribution to
the following national goals (in approximate order of importance as indicated by the
synthesis of responses to the 2000-01 questionnaire):
• Safety of life and property;
• Reduction of the impact of natural disasters;
• National sustainable development;
• Community health, recreation and quality of life;
• National security;
• Preservation and enhancement of the quality of the environment;
• Meeting international requirements/commitments;
• Advancement of knowledge and understanding of weather and climate;
• Efficient planning, management and operation of government and community affairs;
• Provision for the information needs of future generations; and
Policy setting.
Situation in government.
The legal basis of operation of NMSs and their location in government vary widely across
countries. Approximately half of the NMSs of the world are established under a specific
legal instrument (Act of Parliament, Presidential Decree etc). While a few are formally
“corporatised” or “privatised”, most operate as an arm of government. Some 25% are
constituted as self-contained Meteorological Departments and another 25% take some other
form of largely self-contained government agency. Some 35% are part of larger Ministerial
The most common Ministerial portfolio locations for the housing of NMSs are Environment
and Transport (each about 35%), Communications and Science (each about 15%) and
Agriculture and Defence (each about 10%).
Organisation and management.
The vast majority of NMSs (about 85%) are organised into a simple divisional structure
(usually on a functional basis such as observations, research, forecasting etc….) with most of
the remainder employing either matrix (eg program versus region) or business unit models of
More than half use some form of program budgeting and significant numbers employ zerobased budgeting, management by objectives or total quality management as an integrating
management philosophy.
Approximately one third prepare long-term plans, about half prepare medium term plans and
more than three quarters prepare annual operating plans.
Some 60% of all NMSs routinely publish annual reports while around 45% use quantitative
performance indictors and 30% make use of user surveys of their performance.
Funding and staffing.
Most of the funding for the operation of NMSs derives directly or indirectly from government
with more than half having cost-recovery levels of less than 10%. While a few Services have
in excess of 50% cost recovery, a significant part of this usually comes indirectly from
government sources.
Total NMS budgets range from less n US$0.10 to US$13 per capita with a global average of
about US$1.60; and from 0.0015% of GDP to about 0.5% of GDP with a global average of
0.012%. The global total of NMS budgets is estimated at just in excess of US$5 billion
(2000 prices) with the global total of meteorology-related expenditure (including non-NMS
research and non-NMS operated meteorological satellite programs) probably significantly in
excess of US$10 billion annually.
The total staff of NMSs world-wide appears to be around 300 000 with the largest (in 2001)
in excess of 55 000 and the smallest less than five. The makeup of NMS staff is around 45%
professional, 45% technical and 10% administrative.
Concept of operation.
The overall concept of operation of the “typical” NMS aligns closely with the five
components of its mission and thus involves operation of:
• an observation and data collection program (for monitoring) ;
• a research program (to advance understanding and support operations);
• a data processing program (for modelling and prediction);
• a service provision program (to deliver benefits to its national community) ; and
• an international co-operation program (to fulfil its obligations to the international
community and to deliver the benefits of international co-operation to its national
The observation and data collection program provides the foundation for the entire operation
of the NMS and, in many countries, especially those with large area and small population,
may consume more than half of the total resources of the NMS. It involves the operation of
surface and upper air networks, weather radar and the like (and, in a few countries, the
operation of meteorological satellites) as well as the national contribution to, and receipt of
international data from, the Global Observing System (GOS) of the WMO World Weather
The research program of an NMS may range in size and scope from a major, largely selfcontained national meteorological research institute engaged in fundamental research into
atmospheric processes to the part-time efforts of one or two staff carrying out research
projects in direct support of improved operations or service provision.
Similarly the modelling program may range from the operation of a suite of sophisticated
global, regional and meso-scale numerical models to the use of simple conceptual models and
forecasting techniques by the staff of the ‘National Meteorological Centre” which serves as
the (usually around the clock) operational hub of the NMS.
The service and international co-operation programs of the NMS which are central to the
theme of this paper are elaborated further below.
The provision of services to its national community is often, nowadays, described as the
raison d’etre of an NMS, particularly so if the operation of the national meteorological data
collection infrastructure is itself regarded as a form of service to the nation.
In its broadest sense, the term “service” may be interpreted, in the context of the economic
concept of “goods and services”, as almost anything that is used or consumed by society
which is not a material good. Most meteorological services take the form of information
services, the provision of advice or the conduct of investigations but they may be categorised
in many ways according to, for example:
• the type of service;
• the basic purpose of the service;
• the user community sectors; and so on.
Types of service.
One convenient form of categorisation of meteorological and related geophysical services
(Zillman, 1999) which can be usefully applied across the spectrum of time and space scales
(weather, climate; global scale, synoptic scale, meso-scale etc) and physical domains (ocean,
atmosphere, surface land and water) subdivides them into:
• Past information. Provision of information on past conditions from the historical
• Current information. Provision of information on the current state of the atmosphere,
oceans or surface land and water;
• Future information. Provision of forecasts (or “predictions”, “outlooks” etc) of future
conditions, especially warnings of severe, or otherwise adverse, weather and climate
• Advice. Provision of advice on meteorological and related science and its application
to user needs; and
• Investigation. Conduct of investigations into specific scientific problems of the
atmospheric environment.
More simply, the distinction is often made between
• Weather information – taken to mean both current and past information;
• Forecasts – taken to include everything from “now-casts” (up to 2 hours into the
future), very short range forecasts (2-12 hours), short-range forecasts (12 hours to 3
days), medium- range forecasts (3-10 days), extended range forecasts (10 days-one
month) and long range forecasts (alternatively referred to as seasonal to interannual
climate prediction; one month-2 years) through to climate prediction (beyond 2
years); and
• Warnings – advice of dangerous or otherwise adverse weather or climate conditions
for which protective, or other preparedness, action is advisable;
and, within each of these categories, the service can consist of anything from unprocessed
basic data and products such as synoptic charts, to radar and satellite imagery and on-the-spot
advice and guidance on how to make best use of the information provided.
Basic and special services.
In the early 1990’s, WMO introduced a very important distinction between what are referred
to as “basic” and “specialised” services based on the ultimate socio-economic purpose to
which they are directed. According to this distinction (WMO, 2003a):
• Basic services are those service provided by an NMS in discharging its government ’s
sovereign responsibility to protect the life and property of its citizens, to contribute to
their general welfare and the quality of their environment and to meet its international
obligations under the Convention of the World Meteorological Organization and other
relevant international treaties and agreements; and
• Specialised services are those services beyond, and complementary to, the basic
services which are provided to meet the special needs of individual users or user
groups and which may include the provision of special data and products, their
interpretation, distribution and dissemination along with special purpose
investigations and consultative advice.
Sectoral services.
Traditionally, both nationally and internationally, the provision of meteorological services
has been planned and managed in terms of appropriate groupings of the major user
community sectors to which they are directed. While the group ings obviously differ
significantly from country to country, the most common include:
• Public Weather Services – provided for the benefit of the community at large;
• Marine Weather Services – provided for the safety (mainly), efficiency and economy
of marine transport, fishing, ocean sports and other coastal and offshore activities
including especially services provided in support of the International Convention for
Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS);
• Aviation Weather Services – provided for the safety (mainly), efficiency and
economy of civil aviation, including private, general and commercial aviation;
• Defence Weather Services – provided (sometimes by the NMS, sometimes by a
special meteorological arm of the Defence Service) in support of the operations of the
national army, air- force or navy (or all of these);
• Climate Services – sometimes treated as a separate family of services for all those
who require climate information, advice or investigation for planning or other
purposes; and
• Environmental Services – encompassing a range of services focussed on air and water
quality and including both weather and climate services tailored for environmental
protection and environmental management purposes.
Users, clients and customers.
Historically, in WMO usage and in most countries, it has been customary to employ the term
“users” for those to whom meteorological services are directed and who subsequently “use”
them for a wide range of decision- making and other purposes. In more recent times, as part
of the “service revolution”, the move to a “customer focus” in both private and public sector
organisations and the generally more commercial orientation of many NMSs, there has been a
tendency to want to replace the term “user” by ‘customer” in WMO circles.
While clearly this will continue to be primarily a matter for national preference and custom, a
potentially useful distinction can be made as follows:
• users - the all-encompassing and general term for those who make use of
meteorological services with emphasis, when a distinction is needed, on those making
use of services provided for general public benefit;
• clients – also a fairly general term but applied when there is a more focussed and oneto-one relationship between the provider and beneficiary of the service;
• customers – those who purchase a specialised commercial service from the NMS or
from some other service provider.
The concept of a national meteorological service system.
Although the role of the NMS is of central importance in all countries and the only significant
player in the provision of public weather services in ma ny, it is increasingly important to
recognise the concept of the “national weather and climate enterprise” (National Research
Council, 2003) or the total “national meteorological service system” involving, along with the
NMS, a range of other public and private sector service providers, the mass media and the
academic community.
Although the scope of what is to be regarded as “public weather services” will depend on the
geographic, climatic and socioeconomic circumstances of each country and the decision on
what is to be included in the service provided to the public by an individual NMS will remain
a matter for national decision, the WMO community now have access to a well-developed
intellectual frame-work and a substantial body of international experience to guide NMSs in
determining the make-up of their public weather services.
Definition of public weather services.
In the simplest sense of the term, public weather services are those services that are
provided, usually by the NMS, for the benefit of the “general public” or the “community at
large”. In the narrowest interpretation of a government’s obligations to its citizens, these are
limited to those services (mostly warning services) that are essential to ensure the general
safety of the community from hazards event such as hurricanes, blizzards, bushfires and
severe storms. In the broadest interpretation, they include all the meteorological and related
information that is likely to be useful to the members of the community, by contributing to
their comfort, convenience and general welfare, as they go about their daily lives.
Public weather services may thus embrace;
• information of general community interest on recent and current weather conditions
(temperature, rainfall, wind, satellite pictures, radar images, synoptic maps etc);
• forecasts, for cities, towns, districts, coastal regions and the like, of all the relevant
meteorological variables of interest and value to people as they make the various
decisions of their daily lives; and
• the full range of warning services for:
severe weather phenomena (gales, storms, tornadoes etc);
other hazardous weather conditions (heatwaves, freezing rain etc);
air quality hazards (smoke, urban air pollution etc);
climatic hazards (drought etc);
marine hazards (extreme waves, currents, storm surges, tsunamis etc); and
hydrometeorological hazards (flash flooding etc).
Scope of public weather services.
One of the more significant issues, for program management purposes within individual
NMSs, is that of how broadly to extend the definition of public weather services towards the
climate end of the spectrum. In some NMSs that operate separate “Weather Services” and
“Climate Services” programs, it may be convenient to make a sharp cut-off at around the
limit of predictability of individual weather systems – “public weather services” deal then
with information that can be provided up to a week or so into the future (with a similar cutoff in terms of past information). In others, it may be convenient to treat “weather” as a
useful abbreviation for “weather and climate” and encompass, within the definition of “public
weather services”, essentially all those weather and climate services that an NMS makes
available to the community at large. This is a particularly significant consideration for those
NMSs that operate under the title of “National Weather Service” but provide the full range of
meteorological (ie weather and climate) services to their national communities.
Delivery of services to the public.
The distinguishing feature of public weather services is the emphasis placed, in virtually all
countries, on the wide availability and rapid communication of the information to the user
community. All the established means of public communication are, of course, emp loyed:
• television (including special warning arrangements);
• radio (including special warning arrangements);
• newspapers;
• internet and NMS web-sites;
• telephone (including Short Message Systems);
• facsimile;
• beacons and beepers; and
• warning sirens.
A range of publics.
Some NMSs recognise the concept of a number of different “publics” in which a distinction
is made between the collective interest of the group with a common area of concern and the
individual interests of a particular person within that group. One may thus, for example,
provide services for the “boating public” or the “travelling public” with services broadly
tailored to their respective needs but not specifically focussed on the requirements of any
particular individual within the group.
For most of the past century, most governments have operated the national meteorological
infrastructure required to support the provision of meteorological services and have provided
most of the services required by their national communities.
Historically, the rationale for this situation can be viewed as the product of a mixture of
international precedent, international obligation, general community expectations, political
response to past meteorological events, and sound long-term public policy. In particular, the
role of the WMO in facilitating international co-operation and co-ordination, benchmarking,
and information and technology transfer has reinforced both the overall architecture of
meteorological service provision and the benefits that it delivers to each individual country.
Over the past few decades, however, the widespread re-evaluation of the role of government
that swept the industrialised world and subsequently, through the influence of the
international financial institutions, most of the developing countries began to call the
established order into question; and, by analogy with a range of other services that have
traditionally been provided by government but are now devolved to the private sector, a range
of alternatives to the traditional government- funded NMS began to be canvassed in a number
of countries and implemented in a few (WMO, 1999a).
This is not the place to trace the history of this process from the initial period of
destabilisation to the present, almost restabilised, situation but it may be appropriate to
summarise the essential features of what now seems to be fairly generally accepted as a
sound and robust public policy framework for the provision of meteorological services at the
national level.
The rationale for a government role.
It appears to be widely accepted nowadays that, even in the most extreme forms of market
economy, governments retain a central responsibility for ensuring the provision of those
services which:
• are essential to the safety and security of their citizens;
• produce economic benefits exceeding the cost of their provision; and
• must be provided to meet established international obligations;
and which would not be provided, or would not be provided to a socially optimal level,
through the operation of market processes.
In other words, in current economic thinking, it remains the responsibility of governments to
provide, or ensure the provision of, what are known as “public goods”. Public goods are
those goods and services which exhibit both:
• non-rivalry of consumption – one person’s consumption does not reduce the amount
available to others; and
• non-excludability – it is impossible or extremely expensive to exclude from benefit a
person or organisation that refuses to contribute to the cost.
The opposite situation applies to what economists refer to as “private goods”, which are
both rivalrous and excludable and which are appropriately provided through market
processes. In between are what are known as “mixed goods” which may be either rivalrous
but non-excludable or non-rivalrous but excludable.
The theory of public goods can be found in a range of economic texts (eg Cornes and
Sandler, 1996; Stiglitz, 2000) and their interpretation and application in the meteorological
context has been summarised by Harris (1995), Zillman and Freebairn (2001), Freebairn and
Zillman (2002a) and Gunasekera and Zillman (2004).
Meteorological services span the spectrum of public, mixed and private goods and may thus
be viewed, at least from an economic perspective, as optimally provided through a
combination of government funded and market mechanisms. Indeed, returning to the
definitions of “basic” and “specialised” services above, basic services are essentially of the
nature of public goods and “specialised services” are, in economic terms, mostly private
There are, however, two fundamentally important aspects of the provision of meteorological
services and the operation of NMSs that distinguish them sharply from most other forms of
government service, except perhaps national defence and similar forms of public security and
• the basic meteorological infrastructure on which almost all meteorological services
(basic and specialised) depend, especially in a regime of free and unrestricted
international exchange of meteorological data, possess all the properties of a global
public good (Kaul et al, 1999); and
most public weather services, especially those made available through the mass
media, represent the example par excellence of a pure public good.
The funding of national meteorological infrastructure.
Freebairn and Zillman (2002b) analyse the operation of the simple conceptual model of
meteorological service provision represented by an upstream provider of basic infrastructure
and services with public good characteristics and a downstream producer of specialised
services with private good characteristics. Gunasekera and Zillman (2004) examine the
particular features of international co-operation in the provision of meteorological
infrastructure through the co-ordinated actions of the NMSs of WMO Members within the
analytical framework provided by the concept of global public goods (Kaul et al, 1999).
It becomes clear, from this analysis, that the basic infrastructure, data and products needed to
support the provision of national and international meteorological services are non-rivalrous
and essentially non-excludable and are most efficiently provided through government funding
with their output freely available to all.
Public weather services as pure public goods.
It is worth elaborating a little on the particular characteristics of public weather services
which make them so clearly the pre-eminent example of a pure public good, and also
explaining the special economic characteristics of public goods which justify substantial
government investment in the provision of reliable public weather services to their national
While one can think of various hypothetical examples where basic information about
tomorrow’s weather is potentially rivalrous (eg if one competitor in a yacht race knows what
the winds will be, the value of that information to him/her is reduced if the information
becomes available to his/her competitors), the vast majority of the decisions which
individuals take on the basis of weather information in no way reduce the benefit and value
that others receive from using the same information for their decisions (to take an umbrella to
work, to go to the beach, to put off watering the garden, to take the washing off the line or to
garage the car before the arrival of the approaching hailstorm).
Similarly, the intrinsic nature of weather information, especially once it has been printed in
the newspapers, broadcast on the airwaves or made gene rally accessible on a web-site, means
that it is virtually impossible to exclude anyone from having access. It is, indeed, just as
hard, if not harder, to exclude a potential user from access to the public weather service as it
is to exclude ships from the light of the lighthouse that economists have traditionally used as
the text-book example of a non-rivalrous and non-excludable “pure public good” (Heilbroner
and Thurow, 1994).
There is one particular feature of the distinction between private and public goods which is of
enormous significance to the public policy perspective on the appropriate level of
government investment in the provision of the infrastructure needed to support a particular
level (quality, quantity) of public weather services. It relates to the overall benefit to the
economy from the provision of the good or service concerned. In the case of a private good,
the total benefit is the value of what the highest bidder is willing to pay. In the case of a
public good, it is the total of all the individual benefits obtained by all the members of society
who consume the good – for public weather services, the sum of the economic benefits
derived by every individual citizen who uses the weather information to make a decision
which reduces his/her costs or enhances his/her gains.
At least until the 1980’s, the provision of public weather services was regarded as a strictly
national issue and was little mentio ned in WMO fora except on an informal basis. A few
NMSs collected samples of TV weather broadcasts and newspaper weather segments from
other countries for “bench-marking” purposes but mostly each NMS and its national media
partners collaborated in their own way with styles of presentation following well-established
national tradition. For the most part, both the NMSs and their national user communities
were happy, albeit some NMSs felt embarrassment from to time that, although they were
exchanging operational data and products around the clock under the WMO World Weather
Watch, they could not tell someone who rang up what tomorrow’s forecast would be for even
the major cities of a foreign country.
Several developments during the 1980’s began to change this situation:
• the availability of new communications and visualisation technologies on the
international market, especially suited to weather presentation;
• the appearance of global television networks with weather segments in direct
competition with the local NMS-sourced broadcast;
• the emergence of sponsors for weather segments leading to increasing competition in
the provision of weather information;
• the expanding role of the private sector in some countries, extending even into the
provision of public weather services that had traditionally been seen as the exclusive
domain of the NMS;
• commercialisation and budget pressures on NMSs and the realisation that, in order to
maintain political support for the maintenance of essential national meteorological
infrastructure, it would be important that the tax-payer public see that the weather
services they received from their NMS were value for money and of world standard;
• the general “service revolution” which placed greater emphasis than hitherto on
quality of service and meeting user needs.
By the late 1980’s, the view was developing that, although not requiring close international
co-ordination in the way that was essential for aviation and marine meteorological services,
all countries stood to benefit from the sharing of experience in public weather service
provision and by contributing to a range of internationally co-ordinated public weather
Birth of the WMO Pubic Weather Services Programme.
During 1988-89, the WMO Executive Council Working Group on Long-term Planning began
its review of major issues facing the WMO community and the development of a strategy for
the ten-year period following the Eleventh (1991) World Meteorological Congress. One of
the issues that was canvassed was the possibility of establishing a “Public Weather Services
Programme” as a part of the WMO Major Programme on Applications of Meteorology.
Several reservations were expressed: firstly that this was not really an issue for WMO but
rather for the individual Member; secondly that treating Public Weather Services as an
“Applications Programme” could weaken the link with the World Weather Watch and, in
particular, with the Commission for Basic Systems (CBS) which had historically carried the
WMO responsibility for synoptic meteorology. Eventually a paper was submitted to the
January 1990 session of the WMO Bureau proposing the formal establishment of a Public
Weather Services Programme under the guidance of CBS but, in the WMO programme
structure, as part of the Applications of Meteorology Programme. With the endorsement of
the Bureau, the proposed programme structure and the draft of the Third Long-term Plan
1992-2001 submitted to the June 1990 (Forty-second) session of the Executive Council
included a “Public Weather Service Programme” (WMO,1990).
After some modification in the light of Executive Council guidance, the WMO Public
Weather Services Programme (PWSP) was submitted to, and approved by, the May 1991
Eleventh World Meteorological Congress (WMO, 1991).
The originally stated purpose of the PWSP, as set down in the Congress-approved Third
Long-term Plan (WMO,1992) was to assist Members to provide reliable and effective
weather services to the general public and major public user groups. The main long-term
objectives of the PWSP were identified as:
• To strengthen Member’s capabilities to provide comprehensive weather services to
the general public; and
• To foster a better understanding by the general public of the capabilities of
Meteorological Services and how best to use these services.
The 1991 Congress noted, inter alia, that public weather services are, to a large measure, the
community’s pay-off for their investment (through taxes etc) in the NMS infrastructures that
are essential, for example, to provide the national climate record for future generations The
Congress agreed that the initial focus should be on three projects:
• Formulation and content of forecasts and warnings;
• Presentation and dissemination technologies, public understanding, public
information and education; and
• Exchange and co-ordination of hazardous weather information among
neighbouring countries.
Members ’ response to the Public Weather Services Programme.
Despite limited Secretariat support and with no separate budget in the early stages, the PWSP
quickly became a primary focus of interest for many NMSs, frequently attracting the greatest
number of supportive interventions at sessions of the WMO Regional Associations and
Executive Council.
NMS staff were particularly receptive to the extensive series of PWS workshops through the
1990’s, especially those which made use of TV and other media personalities to assist with
training in communication and presentation skills.
Especially valuable capacity building initiatives in the early years included the provision, by
a number of major NMSs, of modest “TV studios” to developing country NMSs enabling
them, for the first time, to produce quality weather segments for broadcast through local TV
stations to their national communities.
Guide to Public Weather Service Practices.
One of the most useful outputs of the WMO PWSP has been the “Guide to Public Weather
Services Practices” issued in the mid-1990s in English, French Russian and Spanish and now
in its second edition.
Public weather services web-sites.
Another important initiative in international co-operation in public weather service provision
was the establishment, initially on a pilot basis and managed on WMO’s behalf by the Hong
Kong Observatory, of two web-sites:
• The Severe Weather Information Centre web-site containing up to date warning
information provided by NMSs, initially for tropical cyclones; and
• The World Weather Information Centre web-site, initially including climatological
information and subsequently daily information and forecasts for a wide range of
centres world-wide.
The important feature of both of these is that the information on the sites is originated by the
responsible NMS and made widely available to users around the world via their access to the
New initiatives.
Important new initiatives being carried forward under the Public Weather Services
Programme in response to the priorities of the Fourteenth World Meteorological Congress
(WMO, 2003b) are focussing on:
• Capacity building and training;
• Media relationships and relations with the private sector;
• Support to natural disaster reduction;
• Verification and service assessment;
• Public weather services for the Olympic Games; and
• Public weather services and the tourism industry.
Fifteen years after the initiation of the WMO Public Weather Services Programme, enormous
progress has been made in both the advanced and developing countries but NMSs and other
service providers clearly face a host of new challenges.
For the NMS contemplating its strategy for provision of ever more reliable and ever more
useful public weather services to its national community over the coming decades, the
following issues can be expected to loom large:
Maintaining the robustness and integrity of the underpinning infrastructure. NMSs
everywhere seem likely to be under continuing pressure to do more with less. One of
the most important challenges will thus become that of resisting the pressure for
short-term gain by hollowing out the vital underpinning data collection and
processing infrastructure to release the resources needed to meet expanding demands
for service.
Improvement in forecasting skill. NMSs will be under pressure to continue the trend
of recent decades where a three day forecast is now as accurate as a one day forecast
was 20 years ago (Groves, 2003). They will need to develop strategies for managing
the likely period of closer approach to the inherent limits of predictability;
Probabilistic and ensemble forecasting. The potential of probabilistic presentation of
weather information and the use of various approaches to ensemble forecasting have
yet to be widely exploited in public weather service provision. This seems likely to
be one of the most important areas of real progress over the next decade;
The problem of unrealistic expectations. Because nowadays, the community has
come to recognise that the public weather forecasts are nearly always right, they now
expect them to be always right and regard the inevitable occasional major forecast
error as evidence of forecaster incompetence or negligence. The weather forecaster of
the future is going to need an even tougher, than historically necessary, hide;
Blame seeking and litigation. Allied to the problem of increasing community
expectations that the forecast will always be right will be that of the growing trend
towards blame seeking and litigation when people are disadvantaged by having acted
on a forecast that turned out to be wrong. It is not difficult to see the early signs of
legal minefields ahead;
Quality certification and quality management. One of the more widely favoured
techniques for ensuring the quality of products and services in the private
sector/market environment which has, in recent years, found its way into the public
sector, is that of ISO (International Standards Organization) quality certification.
While the value of such approaches, relative to the established quality management
systems of the public sector and the international meteorological standard setting role
of the WMO, will continue to be debated, it is clear that at least some NMSs are going
to find themselves under pressure to introduce formal quality certification systems
into the ir delivery of public weather services;
The concept of the single official voice. One of the most important and beneficial
aspects of NMS operations over the past half century has been the wide community
acceptance of the NMS as the “single official voice” in critical warning situations.
With such large volumes of information now so freely available and individuals and
organisations now much more inclined to compete for profile and influence, the
concept of the NMS as the single official voice seems likely to come under increased
pressure in many countries. This is, perhaps, an area for special leadership from
Partnership between the NMS, the private sector and the media. The relative roles of
the NMS, private sector service providers and the media (especially television) differ
substantially from country to country and are in a state of flux internationally. It will
be a major challenge for NMSs individually and collectively, as well as for the total
national weather and climate enterprise (National Research Council, 2003) to
establish stable and mutually reinforcing roles in pubic weather service provision over
the next decade;
Regulation of the private sector. One particularly problematic issue, at least in some
countries, relating to the relative roles of the various players in the total national
meteorological service system is the regulation/certification of media presenters and
private sector providers of both public and private meteorological services. The
challenge for the immediate future will be to resolve the comparative advantages and
disadvantages of the NMS, the national professional society or some other body
serving as the national certification authority;
Efficiency through regional co-operation. It has long been recognised, especially
even by those who designed the original concept of the World Weather Watch, that
not every country will be able to afford to do everything that is needed to ensure the
quality of weather services to its national community. Substantial unexploited
opportunities still exist for increased efficiency and quality of service through
regional co-operation in the provision of public weather services;
The role of the mass media. Two sharply different approaches are currently in place
around the world in respect of the role of the mass media in the provision of public
weather services. One approach sees the mass media (especially radio and television)
as a partner with the NMS in the delivery of an important public good. The other sees
the media as a competing provider of a commercially valuable service which it is free
to source as it pleases. While these different philosophies will continue to co-exist,
one of the challenges of the coming decade will be to find better ways of interfacing
between them to maximise the overall quality of service to the community;
New presentation techniques. The experience of the past decade provides compelling
evidence for expecting the emergence of a range of new weather visualisation and
presentation techniques that will continue to transform the public face of public
weather services;
The role of the global service providers. Multinational private sector providers of
meteorological services (and national companies that aspire to a global role) as well
as the expanding global television networks will continue to have a major influence
on the community perception of public weather services. The challenge for NMSs
will be to find the right role as the authoritative local provider of quality services in a
media environment that seems likely to continue to be dominated by “big picture”
global service providers;
The public profile of the NMS. Although the public profile of the NMS as provider
of an important public service presently varies markedly from country to country,
there is little doubt that public profile will continue to be a major issue for all NMSs.
The key consideration is the need, for a NMS seeking continued political support for
the resources needed to maintain its basic infrastructure, to be seen to be delivering
good value for money to the community at large;
Demonstration of the value of public weather services. The last decade has seen a
resurgence of interest in, and need for, rigorous demonstration of the societal benefits
that derive from the provision of state-of–the-art public weather services. Continued
progress has been made towards an overall economic framework for the provision of
meteorological services and, in particular, towards more rigorous approaches to the
determination of the economic value of particular services. This seems likely to be an
important focus of NMS attention, in both developed and developing countries, over
the next few years.
The above list is by no means exhaustive but may, at least, be indicative of some of the issues
that will need to be factored into NMS planning for public weather service provision for the
next few decades.
One thing, and possibly only one thing, can be said with certainty. For as long as the earth
turns on its axis and people populate the earth, they will want to know about the weather.
With much less certainty, we can look ahead to at least three important trends which seem
likely to shape the future arrangements for the provision of public weather services:
Continuing rapid growth in the volume and value of weather and climate information
available to the community;
Expansion of the concept of public weather services to embrace a wide range of
environmental services to virtually every sector of society; and
The opportunity for the traditional NMS to take the lead in the development of the
much broader environmental service role or, alternatively, to maintain its narrow
meteorological focus but serve as the model and prototype for effective environmental
service provision at the national level.
Growth in weather services.
There have been few if any, signs that communities anywhere are likely to lose their almost
insatiable appetite for information about past, present and future weather and climate. And it
appears that the capacity to deliver more, more specialised and more useful weather and
climate information will continue to increase at a rapid rate. Not only does the next
generation of satellite and ground-based observing systems promise to provide weather
information of almost unimaginable detail, but, even more significantly, the models are now
appearing on the horizon that will be able to turn out forecasts for longer lead times and, with
finer and finer spatial and temporal detail, at little or no extra cost to anyone. The models of
the not-too-distant-future will be able to produce forecast information of almost unlimited
detail in space and time. The potential to use this information and its interpretation for
individual user communities as input to refined decision models is only now beginning to be
exploited but seems likely to become widely recognised over the coming decade.
Comprehensive earth system services.
One of the more significant international developments of the past decade has been the
initiative of a group of nations, initially on the instigation of the US, to work together to
substantially broaden and better co-ordinate the global capacity to observe the state of the
total earth system and to make the information widely available to potential users in all
countries and all walks of life.
This has already become widely referred to as the “Global Earth Observation System of
Systems (GEOSS)” (WMO, 2004). Although meteorological (ie weather and climate)
information seems likely to remain at the forefront of attentio n in the early years of the TenYear Plan for implementation of GEOSS, it is clear that, with a globally integrated earth
observing system, entirely new and far more comprehensive earth system (and related)
information is about to become available to underpin the provision of a wide range of
environmental services with the potential for major benefits in the following socio-economic
sectors (GEO, 2005), in particular:
Reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters;
Understand ing environmental factors affecting human health and well-being;
Improving management of energy resources;
Understanding, assessing, predicting, mitigation and adapting to climate variability
and change;
Improving weather information, forecasting and warning;
Improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal and marine
Supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification; and
Understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity.
The National Meteorological Service of the future.
While it will be the continuing advances in earth observation science and technology that will
make it possible to obtain vastly more information on the state of the earth system over the
next few decades, the delivery of that information and the provision of useful services based
on it at the national level will continue to be a major challenge for many countries and
The present-day NMS will face some fundamentally important decisions, in this GEOSSworld era, of which the most important will be:
whether to seek to systematically expand its role, to take advantage of the output of
GEOSS and become a broadly-based national environmental service provision
agency; or alternatively;
whether to more narrowly focus its own activities within in its established mandate
and direct its additional efforts , instead, into fostering the development of other
NMS-like service agencies providing a range of other environment services at the
national level.
Whichever way it goes, there seems little doubt that public weather services will remain as
the central focus of work of the NMSs of the future and that the NMS will have a vital role to
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