Interview with Dr Tillmann Mohr

Dr Tillmann MohrTillmann Mohr was born in Germany on 3 January 1940. As a young man, his predilection was history: meteorology came about almost by accident. He graduated from the University of Frankfurt in 1965 with a diploma in meteorology. He then joined the German Weather Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst) in Offenbach. In 1968, he spent six months at the Typhoon Research Laboratory at the Meteorological Research Institute of the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo. Here, he had the opportunity to study the transition of tropical storms into extra-tropical systems, a subject that formed the basis for his Ph.D. in 1970.

The first operational meteorological satellite (ESSA-2) was launched by the USA on 28 February 1966. Dr Mohr became a member of many expert and working groups of the European Space Research Organization/European Space Agency (ESA) dealing with meteorological and technical details of the METEOSAT Programme. METEOSAT was launched in November 1977 and was the first geostationary satellite to carry a water vapour channel. From 1983 to 1986, Dr Mohr chaired the ESA Programme Board, which guided the transition from the first experimental satellites (METEOSAT-1, -2, -3) to the operational programme (METEOSAT-4, -5, -6). The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) subsequently came into existence on 19 June 1986.

Tillmann Mohr was President of the German Weather Service and Permanent Representative of Germany with WMO from 1992 until 1994, when he became Director-General of EUMETSAT. He retired on 31 July 2004. He is the author of 39 publications, mainly in the areas of space policy, satellite meteorology, weather forecasting and global observing systems. His most recent publication was “The role of satellites in WMO programmes in the 2010s” (WMO/TD No. 1177), which he wrote together with Ghassem Asrar, then Associate Administrator for Earth Science of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Gregory Withee, Assistant Administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. He is currently Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of WMO on Satellite Matters.

Tell us something about your work in the international field.

My links with WMO go back to 1970 when I became a member of the CBS Working Group on the GOS (WGGOS). I was elected chairman in 1975 and was subsequently a member of various other groups. As well as ESA and WMO, there were the international groupings in Earth observations, the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and the Coordination Group on Meteorological Satellites (CGMS). In both committees I tried to push the satellite community further ahead. Very specifically in CEOS, where I was chairman in 1999 and chairman of the Strategy Implementation Team from 2001 to 2003, I strongly supported and helped shape the idea of the Integrated Global Observation Strategy (IGOS). This led to the first Earth Observation Summit in Washington, DC, in 2003 and the Global Earth Observation (GEO) process, which is aiming at a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

Shortly after the first geostationary satellite was launched in 1967, I asked Prof. Verner Suomi about the possibility of vertically sounding the atmosphere from geostationary orbit. He replied: “Young man, when you can do imagery from geostationary orbit, you can also do soundings!”

At Thirteenth World Meteorological Congress (1999), I persuaded the President of WMO, Dr John Zillman, and some other heads of delegation of certain WMO Members to establish the Consultative Meetings on High Level Policy on Satellite Matters. These meetings provide a forum for senior WMO officials and officers, such as the Secretary-General and the President, for discussions with the heads of the operational and research- and-development (R&D) space agencies in the field of Earth observations in support of WMO programmes. The Consultative Meetings soon identified the need for a WMO Space Programme and some Members supported actively the establishment of the Programme during Fourteenth World Meteorological Congress in 2003. The space agencies also agreed to help the Programme by making voluntary financial contributions or by seconding people into the Programme office.

How do you see the future of meteorology and WMO? What are the challenges and what contributions does satellite meteorology make towards meeting those challenges?

I see a bright future for meteorology and WMO. When one looks at the areas of society to which meteorology is already contributing and might serve in the future, my opinion is easily understood. The most stringent socio-economic areas to be serviced are identified in the Framework Document agreed by 51 governments at the Second Earth Observation Summit:

  • Reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters;
  • Understanding environmental factors affecting human health and well-being;
  • Improving management of energy resources;
  • Improving weather information, forecasting, and warning;
  • Improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems;
  • Supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification; and
  • Understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity.

Globally, these benefits will be realized by a broad range of user communities, including:

  • National, regional, and local decision- makers;
  • Relevant international organizations responsible for the implementation of international conventions;
  • Business, industry, and service sectors;
  • Scientists and educators; and
  • The general public.

Meteorology will be able to contribute significantly to all those areas, either because it is and will continue to be the main contributor or will be substantially involved. Of course, WMO will have to shape its programmes to the needs in these areas so that its Members can participate actively in achieving the benefits.

The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) will occupy a prominent place in the future of meteorology. What about the role of WMO?

WMO was an active player in the Global Earth Observation (GEO) process, which it was able to assist and shape. With its two major global observing systems, the Global Observing System of the World Weather Watch (WWW) and the Global Atmosphere Watch, and the other operational parts of the WWW, such as the major data-processing centres, WMO is in a unique position to guide and contribute to the GEO process, which will ultimately lead to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). WMO and the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) of its Members can help implement the GEOSS. This means, of course, that the NMHSs must be ready to expand and provide not only traditional services to the usual user community, but also environmental and related services and advice to a much larger community. By expanding their numerical forecast models into Earth simulation models, they will be able to achieve this. WMO has to assist its developing Members upgrade their NMHSs so that they may play their relevant national role effectively.

If one looks at the GEOSS, it is obvious that satellites will play a major role and not only in meteorology. The future satellite systems will be able to deliver observations which will cover the full range of the frequency spectrum, enabling the remote-sensing of the entire Earth system. It will deliver an unprecedented stream of highly accurate data with high spatial and spectral resolution within minutes. With their large onboard processing capabilities of the satellites, the special ground facilities and the rapid dissemination—within seconds—to everyone in all parts of the globe, satellites will revolutionize the knowledge of our Earth system. We will have at our disposal, within minutes, the full knowledge of its current physical and chemical status, as well as forecasts of the future status, such as weather or air-pollution forecasts, running from hours to two to three weeks, or a climate forecast covering the next month to a year.

I believe that WMO has to grow and adapt to those visions. This is already happening to some extent as demonstrated in the slogan of WMO as it appears on WMO stationery and publications, where the three items “weather”, “climate” and “water” are featured. The future of WMO will depend on whether it will be able to widen its remit even further to demonstrate that it is ready to deal with the full Earth system.

New Year’s reception on 7 January 2004 with the President of Germany, Johannes Rau (Photo: von Lingen)  

In what specific ways can the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services of developing countries be helped?

We know that there exist large gaps between the capacities of NMHSs in developed and developing countries. These gaps will be closed only when developing countries are able to change into developed ones, an excellent example being China and some other Asian countries. It will be difficult to develop a NMHS in a country, which does not move ahead. Of course, WMO will have to assist in every way possible. There are good examples WMO can follow, like the Preparation for the Use of METEOSAT Second Generation in Africa (PUMA) project, launched by EUMETSAT and financed by the European Union. Here, a mechanism was found by which all African NMHSs will be equipped with a satellite receiving station and a processing facility by the end of September 2005 for acquiring the most advanced geostationary satellite data from EUMETSAT´s METEOSAT Second Generation satellite MSG-1 (now called METEOSAT-8) and will be able to create and deliver the most appropriate information and services for their customers.


You retired from professional life in July 2004. What are some of your current activities and future plans?

Since I have many interests outside meteorology, there is a need, clearly, to concentrate on a few. History will be one: all periods of history fascinate me. The study of history is so important because it explains the present, explains why people do certain things. On the other hand, I still have an interest in satellites and in the GEOSS initiative. In this respect, I was glad to accept the invitation by the Secretary-General of WMO to act as his Special Adviser on Satellite Matters. I am sure that I will be able to make useful contributions in the years to come.

The first operational meteorological satellite was launched into a Sun-synchronous orbit on 28 February 1966. As soon as I saw the images it transmitted, I was convinced that the future of observing our planet Earth would rest with satellites.

What does your role of Special Adviser entail?

At the moment, there are two particular projects. One is the International Geostationary Laboratory. Basically, the idea is to form a partnership among space agencies to test new instruments for use on board geostationary satellites. This possibility exists for polar-orbiting spacecraft in the form of the R&D satellite missions. Until now, the testing of a new instrument in geostationary orbit has been a long, heavy, time-consuming and expensive process, because it was done on board operational spacecraft. The specifications for an operational satellite system have to be very stringent as the whole system, including the instruments to be tested, are intended to last 7-10 years and not just 1-3 years. This means that the costs are very high. With the laboratory approach, we can make use of smaller satellites, which are less expensive, and each agency may participate in a different way—in providing only the instrument, or in the satellite bus, in the launch, or in the ground segment, or in disseminating the information to users. What we are working on right now is getting the commitment of the space agencies to the process.

The other project is the Scientific Steering Group for the International Polar Year 2007/2008. Generally speaking, my role of adviser is one of participating, assisting, reviewing documents (but not writing them!) and, of course, advising! I mention these two important projects but the Secretary-General may ask for my advice on any number of relevant subjects.

Dr Tillmann Mohr  
Kourou, French Guyana, 28 August 2001: launch of MSG-1 (Photo: ESA-CNES-AEROSPACE)  

Finally, what advice would you give to a young person wishing to become a meteorologist?

I would advise that person: “Aim for a solid basis in whatever specialized field of meteorology you selected during your university studies. If at all possible, study at postgraduate level in an institution abroad and master, to an excellent level, at least one foreign language. And widen your remit during the first years of your career to obtain a broad view and be ready to meet the challenges of change.”







back to top







  Latest issue [pdf]

About the Bulletin

Copyright | Privacy policy | Disclaimer | Guidelines |