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The oceans

WMO cooperates with other international organizations involved with activities related to the oceans and primarily with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO). A strong partnership was established with IOC in 1999 in the form of the Joint WMO-IOC Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM).

  bad weather

One element of WMO's mission is the provision of quality meteorological forecast and warning services in support of the safety of life and property at sea. The provision of marine meteorological and oceanographic services, to meet the requirements of marine users, is the highest priority for the Marine Meteorology and Oceanography Programme (MMOP), since they contribute substantially to national economies, as well as being essential for the safety of life at sea, as recognized in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). In this context, WMO has always cooperated closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to ensure that the best and most complete services are provided to meet the needs of mariners, wherever they may find themselves on the world oceans. Requirements for the provision of such services, as well as the role of WMO in their global coordination and regulation, are written into SOLAS and WMO works to ensure that the provisions of SOLAS are fulfilled, using the WMO Marine Broadcast System for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This System is also coordinated with the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service operated by the International Hydrographic Organization.

The oceans cover about two-thirds of the surface of the Earth and affect all of us. Adverse ocean phenomena have major impacts on the marine coastal environment and socio-economic activities. When a large number of people live in the coast and depend on coastal resources and the marine environment, they are permanently at risk and vulnerable to extreme marine meteorological events.

The oceans provide vital food, energy, water and hydrocarbon and mineral resources, and are an essential component of the Earth’s climate system. Increasingly, the oceans are under stress from the pressures of coastal development, industrial pollution and over-fishing. The oceans can also be a serious obstacle or threat to human activities. Protection of life and property at sea and in coastal regions, the integrated coastal management and societal impacts, in particular in case of extreme events (e.g. storm surges, and high and/or long waves), and the role of the oceans in climate variability and change, have become matters of global concern in recent years. These are some of the traditional areas of activities of the WMO Marine Meteorology and Oceanography Programme (MMOP), and continue to be its highest priorities.

For those who work at sea or live near the coast, forecasts of maritime weather and ocean conditions can be just as important as forecasts of weather in general. Rough seas, freak waves, storm surges and strong currents can make many marine activities difficult and dangerous. High waves and storm surges can lead to coastal flooding. Tropical cyclones and associated phenomena can be the most dangerous conditions encountered by seamen. Ocean currents and winds transport and disperse oils slicks, harmful algal blooms and other marine pollution. Changes in ocean temperature can affect the marine ecosystem, from plankton to fisheries and influence weather and climate. Understanding, monitoring, mapping and predicting maritime weather and ocean conditions offer the opportunity for adequate planning of coastal zone and marine activities and to provide a structure for early detection and warning marine-related hazards.

The MMOP is the “common denominator” for data, products and services worldwide for all users in the maritime sector.

The dangers arising from adverse maritime weather and ocean conditions have been realized since man first went to sea by boat. Coastal areas of the world abound in histories of local fishing fleets tragically lost in heavy seas within a few hours’ sailing time of the safety of a harbour and of sailors drowned in some distant ocean. It is not surprising therefore that in many sea-faring countries National Meteorological Services were originally established (from the middle of the 19th century) to issue storm warnings for coastal waters. It was the initiative of a naval officer, Matthew Fontaine Maury, which led to the convening of the first international meteorological conference at Brussels in 1853.

This was the beginning of an international cooperation and a uniform system for collecting weather observations at sea and for using and exchanging these data for the benefit of shipping in return. The aim was also to gain knowledge of the climatology of the oceans and to better define trade shipping routes, to minimize hazards and costs and, therefore, increase the efficiency of maritime navigation.

With the development of scientifically based maritime weather forecasting, the tentative efforts of the small group of pioneers at Brussels ultimately led to the establishment of the present Marine Meteorology and Oceanography Programme under the auspicious of WMO. One of the main features of the MMOP is the scheme whereby each national Meteorological Service involved assumes responsibility for an agreed area of the high seas and coastal waters. The weather and sea bulletins, which they broadcast by the Global maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) at regular intervals, provide information for the mariners on the location, movement and probably development of weather systems and on the associated weather and ocean conditions; special warnings are given of hazardous situations. Seafarers themselves contribute to the success of the Programme by providing weather observations under WMO Voluntary Observing Ships’ Scheme, in response to the International Convention for the safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which specifies that “the Contracting Governments undertake the encourage the collection of meteorological data by the ships at sea, and to arrange for their examination, dissemination and exchange in the manner most suitable for the purpose of aiding navigation”.

Thanks to these services, countless lives have been saved, but there are still a regrettably high number of shipping and other infrastructure disasters each year in which adverse weather and sea play a role. Every effort must therefore continue to be made to improve the work of the marine meteorological services. Their tasks must, in any case, be adapted to meet the challenging met-ocean products and services support requirements of the end-users and new application areas that are now becoming increasingly important, such as:

  • Offshore resource exploration
  • Marine engineering
  • Sub-surface communications
  • Tsunami prediction and warning systems
  • Storm surges and coastal defence communities
  • Ship routeing and navigation
  • Operations in the marginal ice zone
  • Pollution monitoring prevention and clean-up
  • Sustainable management of commercial fishing
  • Marine and coastal environmental management
  • Synoptic, seasonal and other long-term forecasting
  • Climate prediction at different time-scales.

In addition, the recent rapid growth of recreational boating (non-SOLAS vessels) has led to demands for better information about sudden winds associated with thunderstorms and squalls; the small sailing boats so widely used for recreation can easily be capsized, especially in the hands of a relatively inexperienced sailor, by a gust of wind, which would hardly be noticed by a large ship. Those engaged in offshore oil and gas drilling and mining operations need highly specialized weather and sea forecasts. The requirements of hovercraft operators differ from those of conventional shipping.

 

 
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