WMO Technical Regulations: An interview with Dimitar Ivanov

Dimitar Ivanov is the chief of the WMO Aeronautical Meteorology Division and the officer in charge of quality management systems. For the last five years, he has been providing guidance and advice on updating and amending the WMO technical regulations. Mr Ivanov has extensive experience in the development and management of regulatory frameworks for the provision of meteorological services to aviation through his work at the national level and for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In view of the high priority accorded by the Seventeenth World Meteorological Congress (2015) to enhancing the organization-wide culture of compliance with the international regulatory framework that WMO has been promulgating – which is one of its main functions – the Bulletin has interviewed Mr Ivanov on the topic.

Is there a link between the "clouds" theme and the WMO Technical Regulations?

Bob Dylan sang “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” In the same way, WMO gave names to all the clouds – or rather, its predecessor was involved in the process long before WMO, in its current form, existed. During the nineteenth century, an international effort was made by many scientists and observers of the sky to agree upon a classification of clouds based on their appearance and physical characteristics. This work was guided by the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) and resulted in the development of the International Cloud Atlas, Volume I of which serves as Annex I to the WMO Technical Regulations today.

Standardized cloud observations were extremely important in the early years of weather forecasting, which was at the time a mixture of science, art and black magic. The ability to “read the sky” by knowing the cloud types and their physical links to frontal systems and air mass characteristics was essential for forecasters.

When did WMO start to create international regulations?

Standardization in meteorology predates WMO as is clear from this excerpt from an invitation letter to the first International Meteorological Congress, written during the Leipzig Conference in August 1872: “At the present time, the increasing interest in meteorology research shown by all civilized countries has led to a demand for far-reaching coordination and standardization of the methods and procedures in use in different countries.” The Leipzig Conference established some of the main features of the international approach to meteorology, including standardized observations, telegraphic exchange of data, international coordination and governance through a dedicated international body. IMO was established one year later in September 1873 at the First International Meteorological Congress in Vienna.

Attempts at standardization, however, started even earlier. The so-called Beaufort wind force scale was devised in 1805 and the first international meteorological conference, known as the Maritime Conference, was held in Brussels in August 1853. This conference established the basis for standardized maritime observations and the standardization of ships’ weather logbooks, which allowed Lieut. Matthew Fontaine Maury to develop wind charts over the oceans.

For its almost 80 years of existence (1873 to 1951), IMO was the main body promoting international standardization. It established a structure that served international meteorology well, which included technical commissions, an especially effective means of promoting the international standardization of observations and ways of exchanging observational data. The standardization and optimization of weather observation and reporting practices received a great deal of attention at IMO meetings. 

The first prototype of a regulatory document was the International Cloud Atlas, mentioned above. It was first published in Paris in 1896 and a more definitive second edition appeared in 1910. The newest version set to be published by WMO simultaneously with this Bulletin, 121 years after the first.     

A very strong stimulus for the development of a common global framework of technical regulations arrived after World War I with the emergence of international air transport. Aviation is one of the most weather-sensitive businesses, but was even more so in its early years. Aerodrome meteorological observations and reports were crucial for flight planning and safety and had to be highly standardized for the growing number of regular international flights.

Yet it was not until the WMO World Weather Watch was established in the early 1960s that the vision of a global network of stations making standardized observations and exchanging data through common protocols across national borders truly materialized. This began the next round of intensive standard-making and was a major step forward in globalizing meteorological networks, using emerging satellite observations and advancing numerical weather prediction. In order to operate successfully, the three global components of the World Weather Watch – the Global Observing System (GOS), the Global Telecommunication System (GTS) and the Global Data-processing and Forecasting System (GDPFS) – all required a strong regulatory framework that was collectively enforced and implemented by all WMO Members.

Did the transformation of IMO to WMO strengthen the development of standards in meteorology?

The transformation from IMO to WMO was brought about to a great extent by the desire for stronger international standardization and regulation. As an association of meteorological services, IMO was what would today be called a non-governmental organization (NGO). Its technical commissions had been trying to introduce certain standards and harmonized procedures, hence, as cross-border data exchanges increased, the need to standardize aspects such as instrument calibration and the measurement units used became obvious. But, these early “standards” were purely voluntary and adherence to them was inconsistent. Prof. Paul Edwards describes the situation in his essay Meteorology as Infrastructural Globalism:

The IMO case was typical of pre-WWII scientific internationalism. For 75 years the organization remained a cooperative non-governmental association of national weather services. The principle of interaction was explicity voluntary. As a result, IMO standards and policies funcitoned only as recommendations, which nations were at liberty to refuse or simply ignore. In practice, national identity and independence often mattered more than international standards, though the polite language of scientific exchange muted national rivalries. Each national weather service chose its own balance between IMO standards and its own, sometimes diverging techniques. Ambivalence about intergovernmental status among national weather service directors, who feared bureaucratic meddling, kept the organization frozen in this state until just before WWII.

The need for a governmental power to enforce international standards in a coherent, uniform way was one of the main driving forces for the transition to a new, inter-governmental form of organization. As stated at the IMO meeting in Berlin in 1939: “In view of the steadily increasing practical importance of meteorology, it is desirable that governments … should have a greater influence on the work of the Organization. The resolutions of the Organization should be binding on the countries to a greater extent.”

When WMO was established in 1951 and became a United Nations specialized agency, all “proto-standards” developed within the IMO framework became WMO resolutions. The Second WMO Congress in 1955 defined the WMO Technical Regulations and the terms “standard meteorological practices and procedures” and “recommended meteorological practices and procedures”. It also adopted the WMO Technical Regulations (Volumes I and II) for implementation as of 1 July 1956. Since then, the Regulations have been expanded and amended as necessary to reflect the evolving requirements of Members and users, taking into consideration advances in science and technology.

How was the WMO role as a standard-making body established?

The role of WMO as a standardization body was established in its Convention. Article 2 of the Convention stipulates that one of the purposes of WMO is “[t]o promote standardization of meteorological and related observations and to ensure the uniform publication of observations and statistics”. Furthermore, the general terms of reference of the WMO technical commissions require that each commission “[d]evelop, for consideration by the Executive Council and Congress, proposed international standards for methods, procedures, techniques and practices in meteorology and operational hydrology including, in particular, the relevant parts of the Technical Regulations, guides and manuals”.  Thus, the Technical Regulations have always been a major product of the WMO expert bodies’ work supporting the establishment and continuous development of global infrastructure and services.

Like a number of other United Nations organizations and agencies, WMO is part of the family of international standard-making bodies. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) recognized WMO as such in December 2007. Since then ISO and WMO have been working to develop joint standards. WMO has also been working closely with other organizations, the International Civil Aviation Organization in particular, to create joint regulatory frameworks for their Members.

What is the structure of the WMO Technical Regulations?

It is important to understand the different types of WMO regulatory and guidance material and their implications to Members' National Meteorological and Hydrological Services as well as for other service providers and stakeholders.

A WMO technical regulation can be formulated either as a “standard practice or procedure” or as a “recommended practice or procedure”; these are referred to as ”standards” and “recommendations”, respectively. A common misconception is that only standards are true regulations, while recommendations are guidance material. In fact, they are both regulatory material, but there is a difference in their implementation status. By definition, standards are “practices and procedures which it is necessary that Members follow or implement” and recommendations are “the practices and procedures which it is desirable that Members follow or implement”. Both standards and recommendations are linked to Article 9 of the WMO Convention, which includes the general expectation that all Members “shall do their utmost to implement the decisions of Congress” – since the regulatory provisions developed by WMO are normally approved by Congress or by the Executive Council, they are considered “Congress decisions”. Article 9 also requires Members to notify the Secretary-General if they find it impracticable to implement certain technical provisions and explain their reasons.

There is a simple way to distinguish between standards and recommendations in the English version of the WMO Technical Regulations: standards are formulated with the use of the verbal form “shall” and recommendations with “should”.

These two types of regulations are necessary due to the different maturity of the requirements they establish and their suitability for global implementation.  With the advancement of technology, new requirements could initially be promulgated as recommendations, realizing that less developed Members may need time to attain the necessary technical capability for their implementation. Hence, technical commissions are given the instruction that they “should not recommend that a Regulation be a standard practice unless it is supported by a strong majority”.

In general, depending on their needs and technical capabilities, Members should treat standards as binding requirements and recommendations as highly desirable for implementation as soon as possible. Members have been strongly encouraged to inform the Secretariat of any difficulties they may face in implementing the technical regulations as an important feedback to the continuous improvement of the standardization processes.

All WMO Technical Regulations are contained in WMO Basic Documents No. 2, a set of publications that consist of three volumes, numbered WMO-No. 49, with eight annexes to Volume I. The annexes, called “manuals”, also contain standards and recommendations for specific systems and services.

The third part of the WMO Technical Regulation framework involves a set of guides that describe practices, procedures and specifications which "Members are invited to follow or implement" in establishing and conducting their arrangements for compliance with the Technical Regulations, and in otherwise developing meteorological and hydrological services in their respective countries. Guides are non-regulatory by nature, but are nonetheless a very important part of the standardization process as they contain practical advice and options, based on Members’ identified best practices. One such example is the Guide to Meteorological Instruments and Methods of Observation (WMO-No. 8), which is one of the WMO all-time "bestsellers."

How are technical regulations used by Members and how is their application ensured?

As mentioned above, Article 9 of the Convention calls for Members to “do their utmost” to implement Congress decisions, including adopted standards and recommended practices. Some authors see this “soft binding” expression as a result of the debate between directors of meteorological services when IMO was transitioning to WMO. Thus, one can argue that there is nothing strictly mandatory in the Technical Regulations, but the main motivation is that all Members would cooperate in a global endeavour that requires a high level of standardization. The vast majority of Members do follow the international regulations in their national procedures and practices, although some deviations exist due to local circumstances, whether institutional or technical. A number of resolutions of Congress and the Executive Council have addressed and promoted the need for uniform implementation of the standards by all Members. Related capacity development activities have also been organized.

Each Member’s data are used by many of the other Members, which is why standardization and interoperability are essential. Members implement the Technical Regulations in their national systems and practices – for instance, standards for synchronized synoptic observations are spelled out in the Manual on the Global Observing System (WMO-No. 544) and all Members organize their national systems in such a way that the observations are made at the main standard times (0000, 0600, 1200 and 1800 UTC) and intermediate standard times (0300, 0900, 1500 and 2100 UTC). Other standards define the types of centres that need to be established in order to ensure that the WMO Information System (WIS) functions seamlessly. The Manual on the WMO Information System (WMO-No. 1060) provides the designation procedures and functional requirements for the three types of WIS centres: National Centres, Data Collection or Production Centres and Global Information System Centres. Standard and recommended practices for the provision of meteorological services to specific sectors – for example, aviation and marine sectors – have been in place for many years. Technical specifications regarding the coding of meteorological, hydrological, climatological and other related information are also included in the WMO Technical Regulations.

As has been demonstrated above, WMO uses its expert technical bodies to create a comprehensive international framework that enables a global standardization of systems, methods and procedures. This standardization is crucial for the uniform conduct of the main activities of Members’ meteorological, hydrological and other institutions – that is, monitoring the atmosphere and hydrosphere; conducting analyses and forecasting; and providing essential services to various users. Members ensure their compliance with the international standards and recommendations by transposing the WMO technical provisions into relevant national normative or regulatory documents. Thus international regulations can be enforced at a national level and Members’ participation in and contribution to regional and global systems and services can be ensured.

How will the recommendation of the Seventeenth Congress for an enhanced, organization-wide “culture of compliance” be followed?

The Seventeenth Congress reiterated that achieving compliance with the Technical Regulations was fundamental to the global standardization and interoperability of systems, networks, methods and related services provided at global, regional and national levels. This came as a response to observed cases of deviations or slow implementation of some requirements established through the standard and recommended practices and procedures. Such non-compliance cases are generally referred to as “deficiencies” that affect the performance of individual service providers. This is consequential because the WMO networks and systems are built on the collective capacity of the Members, which contribute their infrastructure and data at regional and global levels. Thus, any deficiencies stemming from a lack of standardization of procedures and practices affect the performance of the system as a whole. Congress explained how such deficiencies could be overcome through an organization-wide, coordinated effort involving technical bodies, which develop standards; Members’ agencies, which carry out implementation; and regional bodies and the Secretariat, which are responsible for quality control and monitoring. 

The sixty-eighth session of the Executive Council followed up with the adoption of a roadmap to an enhanced framework for WMO Technical Regulations (Decision 93), which outlines actions by technical commissions, regional associations, Members and the Secretariat that would lead to the desired culture of compliance. As part of this roadmap, technical commissions have been tasked with reviewing and updating all relevant WMO regulatory publications before the Eighteenth Congress in 2019.

Improved standard-making capacity is sought through the Guidelines on the Preparation and Promulgation of the WMO Technical Regulations (WMO-No. 1127) and a training programme has been put in place for experts engaged in drafting Technical Regulations and amendments. Improved systematic monitoring of compliance and identification of deficiencies are also part of the enhanced culture of compliance.

What is the role of the Secretariat in the preparation and promulgation of the Technical Regulations?

When new or amended technical regulatory or guidance material is created, the Secretariat has the important role of editing and publishing the approved texts. During the editorial process, the main task is to ensure the consistency and homogeneity of all WMO publications that contain technical regulations. This is made difficult by the fact that the regulatory material is prepared by the eight technical commissions and their many expert bodies. Thus, all officers serving these groups must be prepared to offer advice during the drafting process.

Once the Technical Regulations come into force, the Secretariat monitors their implementation by the Members’ responsible institutions, namely the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services. The Regional Associations play a key role in collecting information about the status of the Regulations’ implementation in their respective regions. In case of identified non-compliance, the Secretariat coordinates relevant capacity development actions with these Members in order to enable effective implementation. In many cases, the more advanced Members provide technical assistance to those that are less developed to resolve deficiencies and raise the compliance factor to desired levels – an excellent demonstration of the aforementioned organization-wide culture of compliance.

Taking into account the growing engagement of the private sector in weather services, how do you think WMO's regulatory role will evolve?

Two drivers are pushing the current active work on WMO Technical Regulations: advances in technology and evolving user needs for meteorological, hydrological and climatological information and services.

On the technology side, the global WMO systems have been reshaped in the last decade: The WMO Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS), WIS and the new seamless GDPFS are major improvements on the World Weather Watch system components. Climate and disaster risk reduction services are also being developed to become part of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services’ portfolios. These developments require an update and expansion of the international regulatory framework.

Other elements of standardization are user-driven. Following a general trend for performance-based standardization, requirements have been developed to ensure that the services provided to various user groups are of high quality, reliable and fit for purpose. This includes standards and recommendations for the competencies and qualifications required of personnel involved in the provision of decision-supporting services such as  aviation or public weather services. Other requirements pertaining to the quality assurance of such services are in place or being developed.

As the private sector has grown in almost every area traditionally dealt with by public government agencies, we can now talk about a global weather enterprise. It is in the best interest of all of this enterprise’s stakeholders to operate under agreed common rules and standards, particularly those related to the homogeneity and quality of observing data, related data policies, processing methods and service attributes. Thus, the leadership role of WMO as an international standardization organization will not only stay and even grow, but also evolve in order to be seen as balanced and working for the good of every stakeholder in the enterprise, both public and private.

Siting Classification for Surface Observing Stations on Land

The Siting Classification for Surface Observing Stations on Land is the first common ISO/WMO standard. It was published by ISO as ISO standard 19289:2014 (EN), and by WMO in the WMO Guide to Meteorological Instruments and Methods of Observation (WMO-No. 8, the CIMO Guide), Part I, Chapter I, Annex 1B. Guidance on how to implement the classification and to share tools used by NMHSs in implementing this classification in their services is available here: http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/www/IMOP/SitingClassif/SitingClassif.html


Edwards, Paul N., A Vast Machine, MIT Press (2010)

Edwards, Paul N., Meteorology as Infrastructural Globalism (2006), The History of Science Society

E. I. Sarukhanian and J.M. Walker, The International Meteorological Organization (IMO) 1879-1950

Guidelines on the Preparation and Promulgation of the WMO Technical Regulations (WMO-No. 1127)

ISO/IEC Directives Part 2, Principles and rules for the structure and drafting of ISO and IEC documents (Edition 7.0 2016-05)

WMO Technical Regulations, Volume I – General Meteorological Standards and Recommended Practices, 2015 Edition (WMO-No.49)

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