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meteorology ––– geneva

Weather permitting

Sven Titz on Celeste Saulo, the Argentinian meterologist bridging divides and watching the skies for the UN.


Whenever a thunderstorm breaks out over Lake Geneva, Celeste Saulo is happy. The Argentinian, who has led the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (wmo) since the beginning of the year, is the first woman to hold the position. She researched and taught at the University of Buenos Aires, where she headed the meteorology department. “I love weather forecasting, where I can combine mathematics, physics and modelling,” says Saulo. But she realised that something was missing. “We published studies but there was no connection between the research and the weather service.” At that time, the Argentinian National Meteorological Service was under the control of the country’s air force. Together with a group of colleagues, Saulo pushed for its independence from the military, which they achieved in 2007. Soon afterwards, she was offered the position of director. “I thought, this is how I can bring these two communities together, research and weather forecasting,” she says.

Scientists are sometimes reluctant to move into the field of management and finance but Saulo felt comfortable. As director of Argentina’s National Meteorological Service, she became the country’s permanent representative to the wmo and began to understand how, as a member state, Argentina could influence the organisation’s decisions. She quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a member of the executive council and, later, vice-president. In June 2023, Saulo won a landslide victory to become secretary- general, receiving 71 more votes than the runner-up, Wenjian Zhang of China.

Everyone says that, since her victory, the organisation has been gripped by a spirit of optimism. She is the first person from the Americas to lead the wmo. “Argentina is a middle-income country,” says Saulo. “This means that we can speak to both industrialised and developing countries on an equal footing.” She comes from a weather service where she always had to fight for budget and that experience gives her the ability to help countries in a similar situation. One of the things that many poor countries need help with is building efficient warning systems for extreme weather events. The wmo wants to see such systems installed in all member states by the end of 2027.

“You can only build a system like this if you work with stakeholders who don’t come from the meteorological world,” says Saulo. In addition to the weather service and the hydrological service, civil defence, television and the Red Cross also play an important role. Saulo wants to strengthen the role of the national weather services and the hydrological services. There are still many countries where governments do not pay much attention to these. “We want to increase their visibility because they are key to the development of countries,” she says. In order to increase economic productivity, for health and for a secure food supply, reliable information on weather, climate and water is vitally important.

In her role as secretary-general, Saulo often comments on climate change. When it comes to the subject, she chooses every word carefully. Saulo recalls the early research of Japanese-American meteorologist and Nobel Prize winner Syukuro Manabe into climate change, which he published in 1969. “And nothing happened because economic power has so much more influence than science,” she says. The wmo has been contributing to climate research for a long time, and the organisation’s research programmes measure emissions of greenhouse gases, especially co2 and methane. But there are still gaps in their knowledge. “To be honest, we don’t yet understand very well how forests store carbon,” says Saulo. “We have to measure it.” The forests in the Amazon region, for example, store carbon in a different way to those in Canada or Africa.

The scientist does not want to interfere in the politics of individual countries but she does want to clearly warn about the dangers of climate change. On a cold spring day, she looks out at snowy peaks from the window of her Geneva office. The meteorologist says that she felt overwhelmed by the way Switzerland welcomed her. Geneva is great in many ways: everything works so well. “But it’s important not to forget that the world isn’t all like that,” she adds. — L

This article was syndicated from ‘Neue Zürcher Zeitung’.

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