"Germany is a global center for superstition"

Weather expert Jörg Kachelmann on gaps in knowledge about climate change and the importance of satellite data for precise weather forecasts

OHB Redaktionsteam
Published on
by OHB Redaktionsteam, OHB SE

Jörg Kachelmann (61) is a Swiss meteorologist, author, presenter and entrepreneur. Even as a child, he wanted to be a meteorologist when he grew up. He studied geography, mathematics and physics at the University of Zurich but dropped out to become a journalist. In 1991, Kachelmann set up Meteomedia AG and started to present the weather for the German ARD TV station in 1994. Since 2011 he has been regularly presenting the weather on his YouTube channel and he runs his own weather website. He is also regularly involved in lively debates with climate change deniers on Twitter. In an interview with Günther Hörbst, Head of Corporate Communications at OHB, he explains the benefits of satellite data for weather forecasting and reveals which types of satellites can be found his personal wish list.

Mr. Kachelmann, it is obvious that you are very active on social media, especially on Twitter.

Jörg Kachelmann: That’s true. Lots of topics can be conveyed very directly and immediately on Twitter.

But isn’t it true that particularly in your area – weather and climate change – a lot of nonsense is spread and great ignorance prevails among the public? Particularly on social media?

That’s true, too. Social media are used for airing all kinds of personal and political views. There are people on both sides who still have not understood that climate change is real. And on the political side in particular, there is often an inclination to blame each individual weather phenomenon on climate change. It must not be forgotten that there is an awful lot of money involved. And the truth can be found somewhere between the two extremes. After all, the fact is that there are still very many things that we simply do not yet know.

What do you mean by that?

It is significant that it’s getting warmer and that there is more humidity in the air. This can be seen in the Alps as glaciers shrink in size. The fact that climate is changing is indisputable. And also the fact that humans are considerably to blame. In Germany, however, there is no significant increase in drought periods in general yet. The question is, therefore, will extraordinarily hot and dry years as experienced in 2018 and 2019 occur on a regular basis in the future? Before we know exactly how this development continues, it is impossible for us to say what the reasons are. What is conspicuous, however, is that certain groups like to use the current situation and its weather phenomena in order to put pressure on politics. Like I said – there is an awful lot of money involved.

The issue seems to be extremely complex.

It is practically impossible for normal people to establish whether the claims are right or wrong.

As a weather and climate expert, what can you do about this?

For example, we will be publishing entire climate series from recent decades on our website. This will enable people to find out more for themselves.

Is it of decisive importance, therefore, to create even more and better measurement instruments in an effort to understand the changes in weather and climate?

Yes, that is very important. That is why we are setting up hundreds of weather stations in Germany. In fact, our goal is to set up 11,000 of them, i.e. one in each German municipality. But it goes without saying that the images from space are very decisive. We have satellite ground stations for our company all over the world: in Oklahoma for the US satellites, in Australia for the Asian satellites, and the ground station for the European Meteosat is in Switzerland where we receive all of the satellite images which we use for our forecasts. Unfortunately, I must say that unlike the American and Asian satellites, the European ones are rather outdated. But I hope Europe will soon catch up to enable us to obtain a similar quality of images.

What kind of improvements are you hoping for?

Mostly that we can see more than just “clouds or no clouds”. We would love to be able to see lightning; it should be possible to see changes in vegetation – this is important for analyzing drought periods. The satellite lends us decisive support for countries without weather stations which do not have any radar. For these countries, satellites are the only opportunity to obtain facts on climate change.

The satellite lends us decisive support for countries without weather stations which do not have any radar. For these countries, satellites are the only opportunity to obtain facts on climate change.

Then you are sure to be delighted that the first  satellites of the third generation of the European  weather satellite programme, namely MTG, are to be launched.

This will supply us with a much broader range of possibilities. The infrared channels in particular will then permit analyses under conditions of darkness, fog or low clouds. Each new generation of satellites is  always accompanied by great hopes of being able to  do things which were previously impossible. But it is also true that this will not mean a reinvention of weather forecasts. It is not, therefore, about being able to make weather forecasts a long way into the future but that they improve the quality of weather forecasts as there is more knowledge available about the initial situation. What is important is that we don’t fail to  detect anything as things stand right now. If we manage to do this, forecasts will also be much more accurate. This doesn’t usually sound all that spectacular but it is of decisive importance: satellites have less to do with forecasting and much more to do with having better knowledge about what the weather is like at a given time, particularly for improving the initial situation when carrying out model calculations. And this is the real advantage represented by satellites in the area of meteorology.

So, will there be more talk about an ideal when discussing climate instead of concentrating on having a sufficient degree of knowledge about and understanding of the current situation?

We synoptic meteorologists are less concerned with climate than with the weather for the next few days. If  we obtain images of better resolution from the new satellites, we will be able to analyse and understand them better. Such data will enable us to generate better forecast models. This concerns many areas of our lives. Take autonomous driving, for example. Whether cars  drive on their own or not: in the end, it is important to  know whether the road is wet or dry and whether the surface temperature is above or below zero. High-resolution satellite images are of major assistance in this regard. That may sound less than spectacular but it is vital. I can only hope, therefore, that Europe soon upgrades its capabilities. In fact, it would be even nicer if Europe were to set a new standard with its next  generation, i.e. if it could exceed what is currently available in the Americas and Asia.

You have often explained how important the perspective from space to Earth is for your work. If you had one wish, what would it be?

I would wish we had enough money for lots of polar-orbiting satellites. Unfortunately, geostationary satellites do not provide very good images of the poles, to say the least. A modern, technically sophisticated network of polar-orbiting weather satellites would be a fantastic thing for meteorology.

What precisely would such small satellites be capable of?

They would have standard channels, i.e. optics and infrared, offering good resolution from an altitude of about 700 kilometres. That would be a practical addition to what we already have. I know that this is a naive desire. But it would help us to better monitor the melting of the ice sheets so we could derive better animations to present to the public.

How important for meteorology is the change in the polar ice sheets?

Right now, images of the polar regions with high time and spatial resolution are practically only available from commercial sources. In order to clarify to the public what exactly is happening to the ice, we should be able to show images on a regular basis. This has a much greater impact on people than when we present them with model animations.

Do you think that such images of changes to the polar ice sheets would generate a greater awareness of the effects of climate change?

I am absolutely convinced they would. After all, a picture says more than a thousand words. And ultimately, it’s all about making it easier for people to understand the facts.

After all, a picture says more than a thousand words. And ultimately, it’s all about making it easier for people to understand the facts.

Let’s take Jane Doe. Basically, she associates your everyday work with the daily weather report. But weather forecasts are important for many more areas of life. Would you tell us who else relies on your forecasts?

Agriculture, in particular. We work for hail insurance, for example, for which we provide agricultural weather forecasts. Insurance companies in general rely on our work. Weather forecasts are also decisive for the tourism industry. In my view, however, the most important application involves making life less unhappy for normal people. For people unable to afford that much and who return home from holidays happy thanks to our forecasts.

In your experience, does the great volume of reporting on climate change mean that there is more knowledge available now or is it merely a popular trend triggered by Greta Thunberg?

I still think there is not enough knowledge out there. In schools, for example, there is still hardly any discussion of weather and climate change on Earth. As a general rule, I can say that Germany and the German-speaking countries are in any case a kind of global center for superstition.

You mean because in our latitudes flower bulbs are still planted in accordance with peasants’ proverbs?

People believe in the 100-year calendar. They believe that rivers have an impact on weather. They are convinced that weather is influenced by the tides. That high-voltage masts change the weather. That low-pressure areas cause headaches. That they can become ill after getting a draught. Oh yes, there is still a great deal of necessity for additional enlightenment ...

You could launch your own satellite – Kachelmann 1. What do you think?

Good idea! When I’ve got the necessary means together, I’ll get back to you! That's a promise!