Russian agencies are continuing to receive nearly instantaneous meteorological data from Western and other governments, which some weapons experts say could be used to plan a chemical or biological attack in Ukraine.
Washington and its allies have warned that Moscow could be planning to use chemical or biological weapons. Still, weather data from some of those same countries – including the United States and Britain – is making its way to Russian agencies. That includes near real-time measurements of wind speed and direction, sunlight, precipitation and other factors that could prove crucial in planning a biological or chemical weapons attack.
The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), an intergovernmental organisation based in Germany, says it continues to provide data feeds to Russian organisations, even as at least three other bodies in Europe have chosen to stop.
EUMETSAT operates technical infrastructure that allows the data from numerous satellite feeds to be distributed, in some cases nearly instantly, to recipients.
The divergent positions highlight how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced some scientific agencies to choose between their ethos of open exchange of scientific data versus the risk of providing information that could be used to attack civilians.
An EUMETSAT spokesperson said the organisation stopped sending data from EU satellites to Russia and Belarus on instructions from the European Commission, but it continues to relay information from other European satellites to those two countries as well as meteorological observations from governments around the world.
“The EUMETSAT position is that the global and free exchange of meteorological data has been hugely important in supporting global weather forecasting and this is how we have operated so far,” said Paul Counet, EUMETSAT’s communications head.
When asked whether EUMETSAT plans to follow some other agencies that had stopped sharing meteorological data, Counet said “the situation is moving fast” and a special council of member states was due to discuss Tuesday whether to continue.
Because Russia contributes data to the program, it can access the EUMETSAT’s feeds in return. That allows Russia to receive data from European countries, including Britain, as well from America, Canada and elsewhere.
EUMETSAT said 21 users are currently receiving data in Russia. It declined to name the organisations.
Russia’s ministry of defence didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. The Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, a government agency that partners with EUMETSAT, also didn’t respond.
Russia has said it is conducting a “special operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and that it does not attack civilians. Russia has said that components of biological weapons had been made on Ukrainian territory with the assistance of the United States. The United States denied Russian accusations that Washington was operating biowarfare labs in Ukraine.
Some Western weapons experts say that there’s a risk the meteorological data that EUMETSAT provides could be used for military purposes, including to plan chemical and biological attacks, which are prohibited under international law.
“If, hypothetically, you’re planning an attack where you are spraying out a cloud of chemicals or pathogens you will need to take meteorological data into account,” wrote Filippa Lentzos, a biological threats expert and senior lecturer at King’s College London, in an email to Reuters. “You wouldn’t want this stuff blowing back on your own forces!”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and visiting fellow at Britain’s Cambridge University, said weather data “is absolutely crucial” during chemical and biological weapons use, to ensure gas and pathogens don’t not blow back on users. “Knowing the wind direction and speed at various heights is key to predicting where the hazard will go,” he said.
EUMETSAT’s spokesperson, Counet, said meteorological data informs decision-makers about weather and climate-related issues. “Such topics are global by nature and require the broadest possible sets of data to be understood accurately.”
Some Western weather data providers have restricted the information they supply to Russia. Among them is the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), which runs data from EUMETSAT and other providers through supercomputers to produce weather predictions considered industry gold standard. ECMWF said last week that it had stopped the flow of atmospheric and climate data to Russia with immediate effect.
ECMWF took that decision to “align our position to the spirit of the current sanctions imposed by Member States and the European Union,” said Nuria Lopez, spokesperson for the agency, in an email to Reuters. The EU and Western allies have imposed a panoply of sanctions against Russia since Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, including freezing the Russian central bank’s assets. Lopez said the decision wasn’t related to Russia’s use of the data.
Britain’s Met Office, the national weather service that exchanges meteorological observations and predictions with international agencies including EUMETSAT, said it had stopped providing aviation weather information to Russian users, as directed by the UK government, “to ensure that no data we provide can be used to further the Russian campaign of aggression against Ukraine by any means.” UK lightning data is still being shared with EUMETSAT, according to the Met Office.
The Met Office said it is working closely with the relevant government departments, United Nations bodies and other international bodies “about the ongoing provision” of British data.
The data that EUMETSAT continues to supply to Russia includes observations from American satellites. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s top weather-data agency, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, which shares near real-time data from polar-orbiting satellites with EUMETSAT, said on Friday the department had not had conversations with the organisation about limiting access to broadcast and satellite feeds to Russian users.
For decades, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), a UN body, has encouraged wider use of public sector data and urged its partners to make scientific information more accessible globally on matters related to safety and environmental protection. Many datasets are publicly available online, so it would be hard to completely shut Russia off, say weather and climate experts. But those datasets are not real-time feeds.
Ukraine had written to the WMO to voice concern over the agency’s data sharing with Russia, said a WMO spokesperson, who declined to provide more information about the letter. The spokesperson said there had been “no formal decisions by the WMO Congress on limiting data exchange to the Russian Federation.” The WMO makes available certain data from countries around the world that it deems essential.
EUMETSAT’s data is distributed through EUMETCast, the agency’s broadcast feed, and made available through an online data portal.
By cooperating with Russian agencies, the European agency can collect data in real time from antennas in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk as its satellites fly over Russian territory, rather than wait until the satellites pass the North or South Pole to gather the data. The data is used for weather forecasting across Europe and is supplied to users worldwide for use in aviation, shipping, farming, construction and more.
In exchange, Russian agencies can access and use data from Europe’s satellites as well as, through EUMETSAT, data from NOAA, the China Meteorological Administration and the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA).