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EUMETSAT and the dust cover of the first history eChapter selector GavaghanCommunications

Meteorology, Meteorological, History

weather and




EUMETSAT needed to explore fully and to clarify. Only then was the Organisation truly an equal on the global stage with bodies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the USA.

This account is based on the minutes and supporting documents of EUMETSAT's Council meetings and on some documents from two advisory groups: EUMETSAT's Policy Advisory Committee and its scientific and Technical Group. As such, the story obviously reflects events as seen through the eyes of EUMETSAT's delegates and Secretariat. It is one piece - admittedly a large piece - in the history of satellite meteorology in Europe. In the future, when all the relevant documents are placed in the public domain, it will be possible to write a more detailed and rounded historical study of satellite meteorology in Europe, including events in and the perceptions of industry, national governments and ESA. This book may prove to be an initial guide to EUMETSAT's documentation. The story begins when European politicians, officials of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) and meteorologists, interested in the potential of satellite observations decided in the late 1960s to work at improving forecasts by launching meteorological satellites. In the 1970s they set about establishing EUMETSAT to manage these satellites.

The task was not always easy. To the outsider one striking perception is that the participants were so immersed in an engrossing and complex task that they did not always make allowance for colleagues in other groups who faced similar difficulties. Yet all groups were striving to deal with the unknown. Sometimes the science itself, sometimes the technology and sometimes the politics and rivalries of nations and organisations made the job difficult. To the outsider what is admirable is that the job was done at all, and though the struggles of those days may have left some scars - now fading - in 50 years' time they will not matter as much as the fact that the task was, in fact, accomplished.

What were the difficulties they faced?

Take meteorology itself. This is not really one discipline, but a combination of many. Atmospheric chemistry and physics, chaos theory, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, basic physics and chemistry - all of these contribute in some measure to the business of understanding and predicting the way the atmosphere behaves. The physical and chemical processes that these sciences describe can be captured in equations and turned into a mathematical model of the atmosphere. Then, by feeding the model information about the current conditions in the atmosphere and instructing the computer to start with these values and repeatedly solve the equations, it is possible to predict the weather. Obviously, the accuracy of the prediction depends on the accuracy and completeness of the initial description of the atmosphere.

So meteorology immediately poses two difficulties. First, the need to draw on the expertise vested in many different disciplines (found in academic and national bodies all over Europe and the rest of the world). Secondly, the need to collect a globally accurate and detailed picture of conditions throughout the atmosphere at any given time and to relay that data as rapidly as possible to the computers that run models to predict weather.


1. Meteorologists shed political shackles, a review of Declan Murphy's history of the first 25 years of EUMETSAT (2011), by Helen Gavaghan.

2. An interview in 2010 with Dr Tillman Mohr, a special advisor to the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation, in Science, People & Politics.

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Eumetsat meteorology meteorological artificial satellites
European Space Agency weather climate policy politics history