Climate Change

One of the major gaps in our weather observational system is over the oceans: Elena Manaenkova

Former WMO Deputy Secretary General, Elena Manaenkova speaks to Down To Earth about extreme weather, the global cryosphere and emissions on World Meteorological Day  

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Saturday 23 March 2024

Elena Manaenkova (Right) during the 28th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Dubai last year. Photo: @WMO/X 

Every March 23, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) commemorates the coming into force of the Convention establishing the United Nations body on March 23, 1950.

The day showcases the essential contribution of national meteorological and hydrological services to the safety and well-being of society and is celebrated with activities around the world. The themes chosen for World Meteorological Day reflect topical weather, climate or water-related issues.

The theme for World Meteorological Day 2024 is “At the frontline of climate action”.

Down To Earth (DTE) spoke with former WMO Deputy Secretary General Elena Manaenkova about the current situation regarding global climate, extreme weather and water. The year gone by was the hottest-ever recorded and this year is expected to break more records. Extreme weather events will also likely spike as the global climate emergency continues. 

What will be the WMO strategy in the face of this crsis? The new deputy secretary general of WMO, Ko Barret of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will take over on April 1, 2024 from Manaenkova, who spoke about challenges this year climate-wise. Edited excerpts: 

Akshit Sangomla (AS): What has been countries’ response to WMO’s Global Greenhouse Gas Watch Programme?

Elena Manaenkova (EM): One of the WMO’s traditions is to be the authoritative voice on the background concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. All aspects of atmospheric chemistry are measured in this, including GHGs that sit in the atmosphere.

There is a difference between this background concentration and current emissions. The variability of GHG sinks such as oceans and land has always been significant.

In the last decade, we saw increased concentration of methane. There are hypotheses as to where it may be coming from. But we cannot make a conclusive statement scientifically.

Now, we have the technology that allows us to measure at a much local scale.

It is important for countries to record emissions through inventories. But they must also use the Integrated Global Green House Gas Information System to understand where those emissions are coming from. For instance, they must know how much carbon dioxide forests absorb and how much goes back into the atmosphere. This will be the country’s contribution to the atmospheric concentration.

Recently, remote sensing satellite observations have also become available. They give a decent approximation of the concentration. We also have global models to help understand how these gases are moving in the atmosphere.

Some countries have already started doing this. Global Greenhouse Gas Watch (G3W) is the same system that we are now offering to cities, countries or continents.

The Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are only implicated in what they have agreed to do, which is based on their own inventories. This is based on guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The G3W system is recognised in the guidance. We are also now scaling this up and have provided an umbrella kind of authority over this.

AS: How can observational data and forecasting gaps be plugged to make WMO’s Early Warnings for All initiative successful, especially for the African continent?

EM: The WMO is quite happy with the fact that Early Warnings for All Initiative is now not only recognised as a part of climate change negotiations but has also started finding its way into decisions.

Besides traditional work streams, the loss of lives because of disasters has never been seen as an integral part of climate actions. But now, disaster risk reduction and early warnings have become the mainstream of adaptation, which is good news. Attribution science has improved enough to tell us what role climate change plays in these disasters.

WMO has specialised institutions which help countries in Africa, for instance, to help build capacity and improve their ground observations and forecasting infrastructure. But, a lot of work still needs to be done. It is also necessary that countries in Africa and other regions themselves come up with ways to improve their capacities as well.

We are also trying to improve the lead times of forecasts every year and always trying to find new signals that would improve the predictability of weather systems such as tropical storms, which are among the most devastating.

We can now track a cyclone even before it has visibly formed over the ocean, based on where the energy wave is moving. But still, one of the major gaps in our weather observational system is over the oceans. The situation is much more critical in the deep ocean and we do not understand what is going on there completely.

AS: What about the observational network in the cryosphere which is so critical to the weather and climate of the planet as a whole?

EM: In 2014, we had the High Mountain Summit in Geneva and we have a Global Cryosphere Watch system established by the WMO Congress. They are scientific laboratories with repositories of data on the cryosphere. But the physical instrumentation data by far is not sufficient.

Now, with the accelerated changes in the cryosphere, especially the Arctic and the mountains, IPCC could not make any conclusions on the status of many aspects in its Oceans and Cryosphere Report. This is because of a lack of observations in the mountains.

For instance, we do not know what will happen with the permafrost in the mountains. In the latest WMO Congress, the cryosphere priorities were passed as a resolution that included a specific and objective strategic plan to better understand and predict cryospheric changes.

This would include helping people living near a cryosphere-related risk such as a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, but also the downstream communities which would be affected if such an event takes place and right up to the ocean, where sea levels would suddenly rise because of the event affecting the coastal population.

In some cases, it is the lack of observation network. But in other cases, there is also a lack of policies to exchange important information among countries getting affected by such events.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.