Space-based Options Could Help End Weather Roulette in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Americans and Europeans don’t really understand the sheer volume of information that is plucked from satellites and radar and sliced a dozen ways and delivered to their smartphones for every possible need—from agriculture to the morning commute. This largely invisible network of data is much less reliable in the developing world. I figured this out for myself in 2016, in Accra, Ghana, after I instinctively tapped on my usually trusty weather app and saw for myself its utter failure to describe the day’s persistent, red-hued haze, a given during the December to February Harmattan season. In Ghana, like in many low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), weather is, unfortunately, often best predicted by stepping outside and squinting at the horizon.

For me, working in an office, “weather roulette” was a mild inconvenience. In all fairness, the Ghana Meteorological Agency has made great strides since I was last in Ghana, and efforts like USAID’s “Feed the Future” program is helping to get weather data into more hands. For many West Africans, however, and for agriculture, fishing, and numerous other professions throughout the developing world, the enduring lack of a reliable, accessible weather forecast impacts lives and livelihoods daily. For example, forecasts inform crop choice, irrigation, and harvest dates, leading to better yields. Forecasts also help the Blue Economy navigate climate change, supports safety at sea, and enables communities to anticipate and respond to climate-driven natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding. The vast majority of weather observation and modelling services are optimized and priced for specialized industries (i.e. maritime shipping, air traffic, etc), or are supplied by governments as a public service.

Space-based services make up a growing slice of the data mosaic it takes to build a strong forecast, as they tend to specialize in large weather patterns and can cover gaps left by a deficit of radar and other surface & air-based sensors. LMICs may do well to lean on space observation data since it could potentially be accessed at less expense than building, operating, and maintaining traditional weather sensing networks. Considering a smallish doppler radar starts at $40k and goes up to $1-2 million each, and one would need multiple radars for effective real-time coverage, there is clearly an inflection point where it makes sense to build in space-related capacity instead of these traditional ground-based systems. The bar to making an informed decision on this is very high, however. For the weather question alone, it requires an understanding of multiple sectors such as local needs, traditional weather operations, available space services, data modeling & related infrastructure.

Thus, the above disparity in weather forecasting is only one symptom of a bigger, two-part problem. First, there is a lack of understanding of emerging space-based options as a cheaper and more sustainable supplement or alternative to traditional infrastructure. Should coastal countries along the Gulf of Guinea invest in ground-based doppler radars to improve maritime and extreme weather forecasting, or should they invest in maximizing use of remote-sensing data freely provided by NASA, ESA, and the World Meteorological Organization? Second, no matter the method of data collection, there is a growing need for associated domestic downstream enablers (i.e., analysts, weather forecasters) that, once combined, provide a service to end user, (i.e., farmers and fishermen, as well as government, military, and health sectors, etc).

Over the coming months I’ll be working on a framework to bridge traditional “development” infrastructure-oriented work and the evolving space economy.

Over the coming months I’ll be working on a framework to bridge traditional “development” infrastructure-oriented work and the evolving space economy. There is a need for development finance institutions, infrastructure-focused financing, pragmatic LMIC government investment, public/private investment, as well potentially new funding and advising mechanisms to accelerate LMIC access-to and use-of space as a viable option to develop national infrastructure. Space-faring nations are poised to engage: China’s Belt and Road Initiative has a space component, Russia is making space-related deals via events like the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, and the U.S. and G7 are launching the Build Back Better (B3W) global infrastructure initiative. Space-based options for data collection and communications should be considered as LMICs make important, strategic decisions on how best to advance their economies and achieve development goals.

No more weather roulette.

If you’re now curious about all-things to do with weather satellites I suggest you start with NASA’s “The World According to Weather Satellites.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank