Climate Data – “free exchange” or commercially priced?

This week — 16-19 November 2020 — the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) is hosting an international conference on the exchange of data about the Earth System in the 21st century.  The purpose of the discussions facilitated by this conference are to find new ways to advance the international exchange of observations and other data for monitoring and prediction applications. 

In the conference announcement, the WMO Secretary-General, Professor Petteri Taalas, claims that “the WMO … has coordinated and regulated the free and unrestricted international exchange of … meteorological data for the last 150 years”.

It hasn’t always been able to do so.

The announcement of this conference took me back to a decade of work that I undertook in the 1990s designing and constructing the world’s first comprehensive high-resolution global gridded climatology covering the new WMO baseline period of 1961-1990.  I started this work in 1992/93, at the time working in the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and

The initial task was to compile a database of the newly completed 1961-1990 station climate normals for the greater European region and to develop the gridding methodology.  I wrote-up my experiences of dealing with 40 European National Meteorological Agencies (NMAs) in a paper published in the journal Weather … Hulme,M. (1994) ‘The cost of climate data – a European experience’. Vol.49(5): pp.168-175. (A downloadable pdf is here).

At the beginning of the paper, among other statements, I cited Article 4.1 (h) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which states that: “All Parties to the Convention shall . . . promote and cooperate in the full, open and prompt exchange of relevant scientific . . . information related to the climate system and climate change . . .”  My experience more than 25 years ago was that many NMAs were very reluctant to operate by the terms of this Article, notwithstanding the WMO’s claim to have enabled the “free and unrestricted” international exchange of meteorological data since the late nineteenth century.

I discovered that pricing policies varied enormously across Europe, ranging from “full, open and prompt exchange” of the requested data for a few countries, to pricing policies that extended up to c.$300 per station-variable.  This vastly exceeded the “the cost of reproduction and distribution”, recommended by the 1990 Second World Climate Conference as a basis for pricing.  If Turkey had applied the pricing policy of the most restrictive NMA (Romania), they could have charged up to $18 million for the data they supplied to us.  Instead, they supplied it for free.

We persevered with our requests, gradually extending them from Europe to the whole world.  We sometimes payed the money (the project was funded by the UK tax-payer through the Natural Environment Research Council), sometimes scolded our correspondents at NMAs or else negotiated with them or found other forms of barter.  This activity occupied much of my time in the Climatic Research Unit during the middle years of the 1990s.  By 1999, Mark New, Phil Jones and I were able to publish two papers in the Journal of Climate describing the world’s first comprehensive high-resolution global gridded climatology, one covering the WMO baseline period of 1961-1990 and the other offering gridded time series for the period 1901-1995.  The gridded data were available for free … and still are.

Labouring on this task was a decade long project that encountered many obstacles to “the free and unrestricted international exchange of … meteorological data” that the World Meteorological Organisation has sought to police.  But it was a task worth competing.  These gridded climatologies have become some of the most widely used and cited observational datasets in the world and are still used to this day.  They inform assessments of climate change impacts, assist with the validation of climate models, and inform the development of national climate scenarios, adaptation decision-making and infrastructural design projects. 

It is certainly timely for the WMO to be sponsoring this week’s conference.  There are vastly more data being collected today than there were a quarter of a century ago.  But the range of private commercial interests are also vastly more complex than they were.  As John Zillman explains in his brief history of the turbulence affecting “the free and unrestricted international exchange” of meteorological data in the 1990s, this principle necessitates constant vigilance.

Mike Hulme, 1000hrs 17 November 2020 (modified 1634 hrs GMT, with a reference to John Zillman, courtesy Sarah Dry).