In-Focus interview: Celeste Saulo, DG - Servicio Meteorologica Nacional & WMO VI Vice-President

After meeting Celeste in Chile, our Director, Luke, had the honour of interviewing her about the weather challenges in Argentina and region.

Could you start by giving us your background?

My background is in atmospheric sciences. I have a PhD from the University of Buenos Aires and I’m a researcher. So all my career was at the university, both teaching and doing research related to atmospheric sciences. I had never worked at weather service until I was called to be offered the position, as the lead in. So, yes, it was amazing for me, something I wasn’t expecting at all. But, you know, when you are looking at the window from the other side and you think that you could probably make things different. And to possibly give something of your expertise that can provide a different view to this organisation, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to take the challenge, to accept the challenge. So I started as the Director of the weather service.

Did you find it useful that you had not worked there previously and went into that position with a fresh pair of eyes?

Yes, that was very important for me and as in Argentina we now have a couple of universities where people can study meteorology but, by the time I was appointed, almost every meteorologist here had been a student of mine at the university.

I knew almost everyone, particularly those that were involved in the research and development areas as well as those involved in forecasting. The observers are trained here at the weather service so I never met them before but most of the people knew me and that made things a little bit easier for me. I was not just jumping in as a complete outsider, I was not an outsider and I was well received by the people in general.

When did you get involved with the WMO as Vice President? Was that recent?

Yes, the Vice President is a recent thing. I was elected as Vice President in April 2018 but my engagement with WMO started a long time ago because of my role as a scientist. I was part of many different groups related to science inside the WMO. Particularly, I’ve been part of different teams of the world climate research program – WCRP – and in the last eight years I was involved with the WWRP. That is the World Weather Research Program. So I was involved with the research component of WMO from a long time ago.

What does your role as a Vice President entail? What are your responsibilities for the WMO?

Mostly it’s trying to secure what is decided by the members, in Congress, really find its way through the year by year activities of the organisation. So what we do is, of course, reduced number of people that is executive council plus the President and Vice Presidents, meet once a year to look into what the decisions made by the Congress and be sure that we are taking the actions that we are supposed to do. So the involvement has to do with that kind of activities, make recommendations to speed up the process and commit, in some way, in the areas where I have more expertise. As I said particularly sciences and also my linkage with the less developed world is something that is easier for me compared with other authorities that are part of WMO and of course, they convey different voices and I try to convey the voices of the less developed.

Obviously, as being Director of the Met Service in Argentina, you understand from their perspective what members require from the WMO, I assume it helps to know how best to collaborate between the WMO and its members?

Yes, definitely. For me, being part of WMO helps me to gather better experience of what WMO can offer to the less developed countries. And also facilitate, to my colleagues, as other weather service directors facilitate their access to what WMO provides and gives. I always say that the WMO really provides a lot and sometimes the directors do not take the opportunity because they have so many tasks and so many things to do that they don’t pay full attention to what is WMO proving in terms of great documents, great ideas, best practices, exchange with other experts. So it’s really a great field for improving the services worldwide.

So do you find that even though the WMO does offer a lot of assistance, is it a challenge to ensure that the Met Services use that properly?

Yes, definitely for me that is a challenge because as you know when you come back home and then you have your daily problems; you may not pay enough attention to what is being done or recommended or suggested by the WMO. I think that this is something that particularly for us, the less developed, that would save a lot of money and effort using what other countries already did and offer to the rest. So yes, definitely for me this is something that I would like to encourage my colleagues to pay more attention to all the material and support that is available for a lot of us.

Could you describe to us some of the climates in Argentina? Because I know from being there myself, I have been to Buenos Aires and then down to Patagonia and it’s hugely different. How would you describe the climate of Argentina, if that’s even possible?

Well yes, we have a huge country and it goes from tropical latitudes into Antarctica. So the responsibility of the weather service is huge in terms of the variety of types of weather. Particularly what is the most hard of those types of events are electrical storms, usually occurring in the central part of the country.

These are huge storms and we know that they are among the most powerful storms in the world in terms of electric activity. So for us, it’s a big challenge because these storms have a huge impact on the population and in particular, for example, huge hail is associated with these storms. So yes, forecasting in Argentina is challenging. And maybe someday we can have different types of warmings going from snow into the southern part of the country, towards heatwave in the Northern part of the country.

It’s very complicated and now that we are all expected to move into the impact forecast based or forecast that are based on the impact that they produce on people, it’s even more difficult. We try to follow the examples that some weather services are really doing great, in terms of impact based forecasts. But, for us, it’s a challenge because of the diversity of weather types and also types of communities and citizens and different areas of the population across the country.

In terms of the challenges of the different climates, do you have different regional offices with certain expertise for the colder weather and hotter weather?

I would love to but it was not possible. Hopefully next year we will have different positions inside the forecasting office that are devoted to particular areas because we are completely centralised except for the aeronautical meteorology activities. The issue for us is to try to develop a better knowledge of what happens, for example, over mountains in Patagonia or in Eastern Argentina. So I think that our strategy will be to concentrate them in subregions, although they will work here in Buenos Aires.

Have you noticed, perhaps over the last ten years, much of a change in the weather? Is anything getting more severe or is there a change in the types of challenges you have?

Yes, definitely you do, to what we are currently experiencing about climate change in Argentina, it is very clear that we are suffering more frequent severe events. In terms of the amount of precipitation, in terms of severity of wind and hail and also in terms of damage. So it is very clear that statistics show that we have a larger number of extreme events.

As you mentioned earlier, your early warning systems have to be very robust to handle that, what is your current infrastructure like, do you have automatic systems or radar, what’s the infrastructure at the moment?

I would qualify our infrastructure as not the desired one. There is clearly lack of infrastructure. Our observing system is mostly conventional; we don’t have many automatic stations. We would love to but what we are doing now is trying to gather the information that is obtained by different networks that are not of the weather service. These are not owned by the weather service but still can provide us with very useful information in terms of monitoring and forecasting. What we do have and I would say, compared with other developing countries, is not so bad, is our radar network. We have 10 operational radars and that is, of course, not perfect but it’s a pretty good number. In terms of that, we have the opportunity to provide reasonably good early warnings. On the other side I would like to highlight the huge impact that is on us, the satellite GOES 16. That it has a resolution and quality and level of detail and of information that really helps us a lot, in terms of early warnings.

I don’t know if you can speak on behalf of South America as a whole, but how do you see the overall performance of the met services in the region? Do you think that they function well, is there a lot of collaboration, is there room for improvement in general across the region?

I would like to collect the level of collaboration and the level of fluent communication between the leaders of each of the weather services.   I think that this is a very good starting point for any improvement and it is not new, I would say it’s five years old or so. A very good relationship is being constructed that helps to build on the capacities of each other and then build a stronger network that I think will good for all. On the other hand, in general, most of us lack enough infrastructure; that is a common problem around the country. Of course, financing issues are also a problem around the region and we deal with similar issues, but the collaboration is really very good. So we are trying to, I would say, to support or build capacity, analysing which are the strengths of each weather service so we can share our strength and ask for help from each other.

In terms of staff and training, I know in certain countries we speak to, the met services find it a big challenge to find staff and to try and nurture future meteorologists through training or school programs. Do you find this a problem in Argentina? I know you have two universities but do you find that a problem?

Yes, I think this is a common problem worldwide because a meteorology career is hard, takes time and the salaries are not particularly good. For example, for the same type of studies, you may go into engineering or other areas, where young people can have better job opportunities. So, yes, we do have that problem but certainly, I would say that Argentina is one of the countries with the advantage of having a very good university. The University of Buenos Aires has provided very high-quality people.

And probably the bigger problem or largest problem I find, in our situation, is that we don’t have the capability of contracting them because of fund caps. We are losing the opportunity of bringing in new people, new talents into the weather service, but I hope this is a situation that we may overcome in the near future – I hope so.

Finally, is there anything else that you wanted to speak about or mention? Are there any other issues that you wanted to address or convey to the community?

Well, for me it’s important to convey to the community that we are undergoing a huge challenge. We, in terms of the meteorological community, as a whole, including academic, private sector and weather services. There is an exponential growth of activity and it’s important for us to find a better way to develop all the branches in equal terms, I would say.

I am sure that we don’t need to compete, we have to work together. In this world of big data, with everything moving so fast, it is an issue that public institutions are more bureaucratic and not so fast. We have to find a way to develop every as part of a value chain if we want to succeed. We all have a part in that value chain. I would highlight the importance of working together. I think there is no unique institution, no unique partner, no unique private, no unique academic sector that can do it alone. We have to be sure that we have to work together That is my strongest message.

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