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The UN plans to extend weather warning systems to everyone on the planet

It’s ‘unacceptable’ that so many people still aren’t covered by early warning systems, UN chief says

Florida, smartphone extreme threat alert warning
Florida, smartphone extreme threat alert warning.
Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The United Nations wants to make sure every person on Earth can receive early warnings ahead of disastrous weather events. It set a goal of hitting that target within five years in an announcement this week. Early warning systems are needed urgently to save lives as climate change makes extreme weather even worse, UN officials said.

Such systems include technology to forecast dangerous weather systems and the ability to share those forecasts with the public so that they can take precautions ahead of storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts. One in three people in the world still aren’t protected by early warning systems, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“This is unacceptable, particularly with climate impacts sure to get even worse,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video statement for World Meteorological Day on March 23. Every tenth of a degree of global warming leads to greater risks — more extreme storms, floods, heatwaves, droughts, and fire seasons.

The planet has already started to see some devastating changes. The number of recorded climate-, weather-, or water-related disasters has risen by a factor of five over the past 50 years, according to a 2021 report by the WMO. Such a disaster has cost 115 lives and $202 million in damages each day on average during that time period.

Many of those who lack early warning systems live in places that are also among the most vulnerable to the climate crisis, according to the WMO. That includes small island developing states, where rising sea levels can also make flooding and storm surges more dangerous. The disparity in access to early warnings is also greater in Africa, where 60 percent of the population on the continent is not covered.

The WMO called for a $1.5 billion investment in early warning systems over the next five years, especially in countries where the need is greatest. The agency expects a big return on that investment. Every $800 million spent on such systems helps to avoid up to $16 billion in damages each year in developing nations, the agency says. Beyond giving people more time to prepare and find shelter, forecasters can even predict the path of a storm and pinpoint which communities might need the most help.

The benefits can also be seen in lives saved over the past fifty years. Even though weather and climate-related disasters have grown more frequent, the number of associated deaths actually dropped three-fold, the WMO says, thanks to more accurate weather forecasting and proactive efforts to coordinate disaster response.

Early warning systems in Bangladesh have been credited with helping to prevent thousands of deaths during cyclones. A cyclone there in 1991 killed 138,000 people and sparked efforts to prepare more ahead of storms. Policy changes improved weather forecasting and the way that information was shared with the public. Bangladesh also established disaster management councils and committees, and built more protective infrastructure like cyclone shelters. When Cyclone Fani hit in 2019, fewer than 20 people in Bangladesh lost their lives.

To reach its goal of planetary coverage for early-warning systems, the United Nations tasked the WMO with putting a plan together this year. The WMO will present its plan in November during the United Nations’ next major climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.