In Focus interview: Klemen Bergant, Director General - ARSO

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Klemen Bergant, Director General of ARSO, spoke to us about the frequent droughts and heatwaves affecting Slovenia and how the service is upgrading their network to overcome these challenges.

It would be great to hear about some of the challenges or a bit of an overview of what the climate is like in Slovenia and some of the key challenges. I know you have quite hot summers, quite cold winters. What sort of challenges do you tend to come across?

Yes, Slovenia lies in the area where it's under the influence of the Mediterranean and Alpine region. The continental influence also overlaps and this makes our climate and our weather quite interesting.

But when it comes to challenges I would say that extreme events are definitely the climate challenges that are the most important for us. On one hand, for example, we do have more frequent and intensive droughts and heatwaves. In general, Slovenia is quite a rainy country I would say but on the other hand, if we look at the last decade, for example, there are almost no years without floods, especially flash floods. So in a way, the climate is quite diverse in a very small region and this brings a different kind of phenomenon.

Also, Slovenia lies in the part of Europe where the thunderstorm activity, the convective activity, is practically the highest in Europe together, which brings us thunderstorms with heavy rain, hailstones, wind etc. and this might even become even more challenging in the future.

And just to touch on that, you mentioned flash floods and droughts. In terms of your infrastructure and your warning systems to deal with that, is that something that is quite robust in Slovenia? Do you tend to deal with those quite well?

When it comes to the infrastructure, after one quite severe flash flood event we actually managed to get European funds to upgrade our observational network. So in 2015 we actually finished our large investment project. Within this project, we upgraded and modernised practically the entire meteorological and hydrological network, and we are building the second meteorological radar. We developed some hydrological modelling systems and we managed to couple the limited area atmospheric model with the ocean model.

So it was really quite a huge investment project for us, altogether about €33 million, and this was financed partially through the European Union Cohesion Fund. So I would say that in terms of infrastructure we've made a huge step forward with this project and this also in a way then brings some more challenges in terms of the forecasting and warnings so we do have of course our own limited models and our own forecasting services. We have our own forecasting system so we try to use our tools and our staff to really prepare early warnings enough in advance and we also have very strong cooperation with our civil protection rescue agencies so that these warnings are simulated.

From your perspective in Slovenia how much do you collaborate with your neighbours in terms of met services? I assume through the European Union there's a certain amount of collaboration but do you have bilateral collaborations with neighbouring countries in terms of meteorology?

Yes indeed. We do have bilateral cooperation with all our neighbours that are even formalised in cooperation agreements. We have close cooperation with the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics. Then we have close cooperation with the Croatian National Metrological and Hydrological Institute, with Hungarian Meteorological Services as well as with the Environmental Protection Agency of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which is the neighbouring region in Italy.

So I think this cooperation between the neighbouring similar services is very crucial for small services like ours so that we exchange our data and exchange warnings for example. We do have some common development projects, so this is very important.

On the other hand, for example, we do also have an active role in the wider region. We host the Drought Management Centre for southern and central Europe where certain countries are members from Slovenia to Turkey. We also host the WMO Original Instrument Centre which is in a way responsible mainly for south-eastern Europe although this is not formally limited. We also host the primary centre for the Sala River basin flood forecasting and warning. So we do try to contribute with our activities not only in the area of Slovenia but also in the wider region.

How did you come about hosting all of those initiatives? Is that something that was voluntary from your point of view?

Yes, the initiative for Drought Management Centre was actually launched by the WMO and we applied and we were selected as the hosting country. Of course, in comparison to some other countries in the region we probably had a little bit better infrastructure as well as some specific knowledge so before that, we might in a way contribute with our capacity also in a wider region.

This is not a big centre as you would think but it's more like a networking organisation where we do have a coordinating role. We do take care of some projects that we apply for together, so for example, we are currently running together a project in the Danube region to reduce the drought risk. So we have a kind of coordinating role besides some operational services that we provide for all the members.

Just to talk about the funding side of things then, so you mentioned it was about €30 million or so that you’ve recently spent on infrastructure. How much of a challenge do you find funding to be in terms of is it a point that it's funding holding you back from completing further projects or how much of a challenge is that for you?

Well funding is always a challenge. In a way, we were lucky when it came to investment as we managed to successfully apply for the EU Cohesion Funds so that we managed to really make a huge investment into the meteorological and hydrological infrastructure. Now we are running a similar project on a smaller scale when it comes to air quality so it's about €6 million but this is funds that we are not able to get from our national funding so we really try to use the European funds that are available as much as possible. So from this point of view in a way, we were lucky as the national funds are quite limited.

We do have some problems, for example, we do have problems when covering our contributions to the inter-governmental organisations like EUMETSAT. The contribution to EUMETSAT is a significant part of our overall budget and of course every year we in a way have to negotiate with our responsible ministry that we assure proper funds.

But I would say that even more challenging than funding is actually the challenges from the lack of human resources because as a governmental institution we do have a limited number of employees. In many cases, there are processes that depend or rely on one single expert and if this expert leaves the institution or is absent for some other reason then it makes some processes and some things critical.

The other challenge that we are facing is we are becoming more and more of an informational society and of course also meteorological services are more and more informational services and it is extremely hard to get IT experts because the salaries in the public institutions are just simply too low for this to be attractive for the highly skilled IT experts.

It sounds as though you have quite a close collaboration in the EU, but just to ask about the WMO. It also sounds like you're quite well established there. What's your relationship like with the WMO? Do you interact with them regularly and what are your thoughts on that sort of thing?

Yes, we do have close cooperation with the WMO and we are in constant contact with the representative there. As a small service, we are not able to cover all the areas so there are a few areas where we are more active, for example, in the area of agrometeorology because of our engagement in the drought management issue. This is one area where we are quite active.

When it comes to the regional instrument centres because we are hosting the centre, we do play a bit of a more active role. Also, we are trying to contribute as much as possible in the new WMO initiative of setting up multi-level early warning systems in different areas including south-eastern Europe. We are trying to play an active role in the area of numerical weather prediction with our model that we developing together with some other services in central Europe.

As you probably know, we are also a member of the regional cooperation for limited area modelling in central Europe and this is another area where we try to share some responsibilities on the one hand and on the other hand to contribute to the wider community. I would say that we do have a close cooperation with WMO and we are especially active in some areas where I would say we are quite advanced.

One challenge that I come across when speaking to met directors is how to communicate the importance of having a good weather service economically and obviously in terms of saving lives, to your responsible ministry. Do you find it a challenge to communicate the importance of this so that it gets attention from your central government?

Well this is a challenge of actually how to really explain to politicians that the meteorological and hydrological services really contribute to the society and it’s a challenge that’s repeated every time we have a new government. But I think at least in the last few years we have managed to do that quite successfully and there are results that are really helping us now.

For example, in the last year, we managed to prepare and it came into force a new Act on the National Meteorological, Hydrological, Oceanographic and Seismological Service which clearly defines our responsibilities and our roles. When it came to hydrology and seismology, the national service was not very clearly defined and oceanography and marine features were not even mentioned in our legislation. So we managed to solve that.

As a governmental service, in the past, we have had a lot of problems to be able to cooperate in European projects because the budget resets every year. However, after several years of negations and with our minister for finance, we managed to get an agreement on how these funds for our cooperation in the European projects are managed so that for the last two years we really do have quite good support when it comes to prefinancing our activities within European projects.

As a government institute, we also had a problem when it came to the added value services. Before, we were not allowed to provide some specific users with value-added services and to use these revenues for employing new experts. Also, in the previous year, we managed to solve this issue and with the new law, we are now fully eligible to provide some added value services for some special users and to use this revenue to employ additional experts.

And where do you see the future of ARSO and what are your priorities going forward in terms of anything you want to change or implement in the future? How does the future look for you?

Well I mean we see ourselves as an important player in the society in Slovenia and in the wider region. In the future with its services contributing to the protection of lives and properties, sustainable management of fundamental resources and an efficient economy.

I mentioned before the new law and our new Act on National Meteorological, Hydrological, Oceanographic and Seismological Service defines the three main goals for our service. One is the sustainability of observation and systematic collection of data on meteorological, hydrological, oceanographic and seismological phenomena. Another one is the improved safety of people and property. Improved state services related to meteorology, hydrology, oceanography and seismology and consequently general benefit for the public and economy.

And of course where we see our role is also in our contribution to the continuous development of the meteorological, hydrological and oceanographic profession in Slovenia. So these are the areas where I see our role in the future but I think for any met service the most important is our role in the protection of life and property.

Is there anything else that you want to mention to your peers?

Well, what I would like to stress is for small services like ours, cooperation with similar neighbouring services as well as research institutions and universities is crucial to efficiently serve the society. I do think that cooperation with the private sector will also become more and more important in the future and this is also one area where WMO is trying to make an effort and that we are also facing on the level of Europe. So that's definitely something that we will have to do in this area and that both sides, public and private, can benefit from.

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