Climate Change

The weather paywall: Will a free public service be corrupted

There will be heavy rainfall in... (subscribe to read on) — that's how all weather information will be delivered if private players are allowed to have their way.

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Wednesday 23 October 2019

Part 1: Why weather means business and how it affects you

The technologies that have helped us understand the Earth’s climate have always gone hand in hand with the technologies that can aid in our possible annihilation. World War II marked the beginning of a transformation of weather observation from a collection of disparate points into a global system that began to use rocket technology and satellite technology. 

In 1961, US President John F Kennedy said at the UN General Assembly: “We shall propose further cooperative efforts between all nations in weather prediction and eventually in weather control.” This footnote in political history became a transformative moment in meteorology, says Andrew Blum in his recent book The Weather Machine.

In 1951, the World meteorological Organization (WMO) was formed under the United Nations, and other countries gradually followed suit by starting or integrating their weather organisations.

Over the decades, free sharing of weather data has become a cooperative effort between the weather agencies of different countries to predict cyclones, rain, heat waves and dust storms.

“We get access to data from the meteorological organisations of other countries. WMO oversees data exchange between all its member countries,” said Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director-general of India Meteorological Department (IMD), which has a vast infrastructure and personnel to issue forecasts. “What has been our principle so far is that the private sector should complement our work. They shouldn’t compete,” he added.

But private organisations are already setting up infrastructures to exploit the exponential demand for customised weather data. The weather forecasting systems market — prediction systems designed to carry out atmospheric research and operational weather fore-casting — is projected to grow from an estimated $2.3 billion (Rs 16,302 crore) in 2019 to $3.3 billion by 2025. Expectedly, it has spawned a new generation of start-ups to exploit this situation.

In 2004, Eduardo Saverin, an economics student at Harvard University, USA, who had a knack for predicting how weather will behave, decided to make money out of his skills. He knew global crude oil prices rise and fall with changing temperatures, rainfall and extreme events like floods, thunderstorms and cyclones.

This is because the demand for products made of crude oil depends on prevailing weather conditions. The demand for fuel is the highest during peak summer and winter months. While in winter people require more oil to keep houses warm, during summer people move out on drives for vacations which increases the demand for natural gas.

The real play though is in the relative intensities of hot and cold temperatures during extremes. Taking all this into account, Saverin invested in crude oil futures — buying and selling them at exactly the right times. Futures are a type of financial derivative that derives its value from an underlying asset, such as a stock, bond, currency, index or commodity and can be traded either privately between parties or publicly at a stock exchange. Saverin earned around $300,000 in a matter of three months from his investments.

Similarly, Climacell is a start-up based in Boston, USA, with 105 employees. It is integrating data from the Internet of Things devices such as mobile phones, smart vehicles, street cameras, aeroplanes and other wireless communication networks, instead of relying just on government provided sources.

With this varied set of data, they claim to make hyper local forecasts based on which companies can take decisions. Climacell has till now sold forecasts to over 1,000 companies which include Ford Motors, Tata Group and events like the US Open. Ford Motors, for instance, will use Climacell’s real time forecasts to allow its autonomous vehicle fleet to escape bad weather conditions on their routes.

Climacell is also using an advanced technology, known as radio occultation, to harness weather data. In this technology, radio wave signals, sent and received by GPS satellites to their ground receivers, get refracted and slow down while travelling through the atmos phere.

The bending of the signal reflects the vertical variation of refractivity which, in turn, depends on temperature, pressure and water vapour in the atmosphere. By calculating the angles by which these signals bend, scientists can reconstruct the data regarding these variables with the help of physical and mathematical models.

As private firms do not have access to detailed satellite-related data from public institutions, they are also launching their own weather satellites. For instance, Weathernews, the world’s largest provider of ocean weather data, became the first private company to launch its own weather satellite on July 14, 2019.

Another data source for start-ups and private companies is the millions of personal weather stations (PWS) located across the world. Sridhar Balasubramanian’s PWS is installed on top of his house at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, where he works as an assistant professor and teaches a course on the ‘basics of weather dynamics’.

“From my PWS, I get to see the daily variation of pressure and wind at the surface. I combine this with some upper atmosphere level data (available with IMD and other climate models) and use it to come up with a forecast and ‘nowcast’ for different regions in India,” Balasubramanian said. The data is then sent to IBM’s Weather Underground, from where it can be accessed by the interested companies.

The mushrooming weather forecasting ventures have opened up another front of conflicts between public and private agencies. Experts, mostly associated with experienced public agencies, say most of these startups might be issuing inaccurate forecasts as a changing climate has made weather prediction extremely difficult. Though weather agencies keep correcting themselves about their forecasts all the time, thereby reducing the scope of error, it is not an easy task. 

Part 3: Weather alerts: Will everyone continue to have access

This was first published in Down To Earth print edition (dated 16-31 Octoebr, 2019)

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