At the State Meteorological Agency (Aemet) they confess that their hand “shakes” before issuing a red warning, the maximum, because they are “extremely cautious, rigorous and aware” of its repercussions at all levels, including the mobilization of Civil Protection, which is the one who issues alerts and implements prevention plans in the face of an exceptionally dangerous phenomenon such as the Dana that hit Spain a week ago and left eight dead.
The decision to do it in the capital of Madrid, where fortunately the 120 liters per square meter that the models predicted did not fall – equations introduced into a computer program that allow us to estimate its evolution, based on data that define the initial state of the atmosphere. ― It was taken “in a very thoughtful way” by Jaime Rey, responsible for warnings and predictions as head of Production.
But “here there is no man who presses a red button,” warns the spokesperson, Rubén del Campo, making the matter less epic. What there is is a chain of observers who monitor all the parameters and forecasters who analyze different models and correct their forecasts thanks to their knowledge of the weather and local climatology.
Jaime Rey, head of the Production Department, during the talk at the Aemet cafeteria, last Thursday.Mario Bermudo
In situations like this, the chain begins with a zone predictor – Spain is divided into seven – who evaluates the situation and works 12-hour shifts. Above, “there is another who is in charge of national coordination.” And, above all, a shift leader, who supervises all the daily work. When it comes to reds, there is still a fourth involved in “coordinated decision making”, the person responsible for the national prediction system, who can ratify it or not. If he does so, he informs the president of Aemet and the general director of Civil Protection. In turn, the head of the agency escalates it to the central government and there are multiple communications from the agency’s commanders before, during and after the warning with the local, regional and national authorities and emergency services.
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Rey served as area manager last weekend, with one person in charge on duty on Saturday, another on Sunday and three forecasters who rotated and did “a magnificent job,” both managers highlighted in an interview on Thursday in the cafeteria of the Aemet headquarters, empty mid-morning. The venue is a rationalist mansion in the University City of Madrid, recognizable by a large satellite antenna. Rey is a PhD in Physics, he is 42 years old and has been at the agency for 15 years. Del Campo, biologist, 45 years old and 14 in Aemet. Both are in shirt sleeves and drink a Coca-Cola.
The probability of a catastrophe in the capital was very high, 70%, so they decided to launch the warning. “You cannot wait for total certainty, in meteorology there never is. The procedure was appropriate, it had to be issued yes or yes ”, they sentence. “Aemet acted correctly,” supports them Teresa Ribera, third vice president and minister for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (Miteco), on which Aemet depends. “Prediction capabilities have improved enormously, models offer more precision, but it is not an exact science. They made an appropriate risk assessment and shared the information with Civil Protection, which helped save lives,” she summarizes.
But the notices are only part of the work of an organization with a budget of 134 million, of which more than a quarter is dedicated to paying the fees of the international consortia to which it belongs and to the maintenance of the satellites, and a staff of 1,086 officials ―its counterpart Météo-France, 362.3 million and 2,735 workers―. The staff is deployed at the headquarters, 17 regional delegations and two territorial centers, the Izaña Research Center (Tenerife), observatories and all airports – a plane cannot take off or land without a weather report updated half an hour before. .
Its three pillars are “observation – half of the staff –, prediction – 120 workers who make everything from the daily report to the warnings, in addition to specific predictions such as maritime ones and for sectors such as renewables – and climatology – reports on the state of the climate. , climate change projections and seasonal prediction―”, describes Del Campo. And the brain is Cirrus, a supercomputer that multiplied its calculation capacity by 10. It runs local models in two hours – previously in six -, costs 5,000 euros a day, plus 6,000 a month in electricity, is three years old and will become obsolete in two, according to its owner, Javier Méndez Ríos. At its premiere, it was the second most powerful in the country, now, the fourth.
But the house, according to workers who request anonymity, “is in bones and lacks a future strategy.” “We are losing muscle, the replacement rate is not being met, we are a third less than at the beginning of the last decade with the same tasks, but more challenges: a greater demand for precision, more demanding requirements with the Single European Sky and extreme phenomena more and more frequent,” laments Del Campo. For Rey, they would be enough if “a deep digital transformation was undertaken to automate all observation.” “But we don’t have qualified personnel,” he assumes.
One of the computers in the room where the operations of ‘Cirrus’, the brain of Aemet, are controlled. Mario Bermudo
Alejandro Piqueras, leader of the Workers’ Union Union in Aemet, estimates that there are 300 missing employees and denounces that this shortage “puts citizen safety at risk.” The situation is “serious” at the airfields: “These services, 24 hours a day, 365 days, are sometimes carried out with half the staff.” “The average age is 51 years. 21% will be able to retire in the next five years and, surely, they will,” describes the panorama of a staff whose “40% earn between 1,300 and 1,400 euros.”
Miteco claims to be “very dedicated” to the agency and to be “very aware” of its shortcomings, which they attribute to Mariano Rajoy’s “bolt.” A spokesperson estimates the number of places created since 2018 at 427 and raises the budget to 223 million, adding the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan. Does the government, if it remains in power, have plans to better equip the agency? “Yeah. The improvement of equipment, digitalization and modernization, expansion of the workforce and strengthening of international and research programs are fundamental,” responds Ribera, who is preparing initiatives to make it more attractive to recent graduates.
All sources agree that more climate research is required. “More resources are needed to carry out attribution studies to climate change”, claims Del Campo. His demands seem to have come to fruition. “Months ago, the president of the agency was commissioned to launch a work network with university teams, research centers and Aemet; we will soon have his proposal,” announces the vice president.
It seems that new and better winds are blowing for Aemet. Under the auspices of regenerationism, it was created in 1887 as the Central Meteorological Institute and, after the Second Republic, the war and the dictatorship in the hands of the Army, it was renamed the National Institute of Meteorology (INM) in 1978, to become an agency in 2008. Ángel Rivera, who joined in ’75 and was in charge of prediction and spokesperson, is a key witness to the dizzying advance of meteorology.
“When I started there were no models, except for a very poor American embryo and another English one, you had to jump into the pool. With four observation data and applying the laws of physics, we drew the maps for the next 24 hours, we didn’t get any further,” she recalls. “But in the early seventies the ECMWF and Meteosat were launched, the great milestones along with computers.” The first from the INM was the IBM 360. “We started running some simple model and trusting the European Center, whose resolutions – the ability to discriminate smaller or larger atmospheric elements – had six times less detail than today.”
The turn was “Copernican”: models, supercomputers and satellites gave rise to “new prediction techniques that are now used in an evolved way” and that allow reliable forecasts 7-10 days ahead and seasonal predictions. “Between the eighties and nineties, the ECMWF was consolidated and new satellites and radars were deployed and the INM created a service to train forecasters. Also the first plans for partial warnings, until we realized the need for a national plan”. This is how the current Meteoalerta was born in 2006. Agreed with Civil Protection, it contemplates three-day notices that are reviewed at least twice a day. There is a project to rethink the plan, which is going slower than expected because “there are more agents involved.”
The short-term challenge is to “fine tune with the storms”, which resist them due to “their small size in the face of a storm”, advances the expert in supercomputing applied to meteorology Daniel Santos Muñoz. The use of “more data, better sensors and fast, frequently updated, high-resolution simulations will help to better quantify the probability of them occurring at a specific place and time, as well as their intensity.” The ally to “detect exactly where the sniper is pointing” will be artificial intelligence, which will trigger the prediction capacity. At the moment, science cannot be asked to provide a cancer vaccine, nor to determine whether the 120 liters were going to fall in the capital or a few dozen kilometers to the west, as happened. It is “impossible to predict.”
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