The IHO and WMO – over a century of collaboration

The IHO and WMO – over a century of collaboration

By David Wyatt, Assistant Director, International Hydrographic Organization (IHO)

The Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea

The Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), signed in London on 20 January 1914

The catastrophic sinking of the SS Titanic on the night of the 14/15 April 1912 was the catalyst for many innovations, initiatives and regulations that the maritime community now take for granted. One of the most significant outcomes of the tragedy was the establishment of the International Conference that drafted the original text of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which was signed in London on 20 January 1914.

Several articles in the Convention cover the requirement for ships to be fitted with instruments to receive safety broadcasts, in particular information on ice and the weather. It is not surprising that the initial SOLAS requirements were very much focused on the provision of ice and meteorological information and obliged ships to provide information concerning ice and derelicts to other ships and authorities ashore, although weather details were optional. The text included particular instructions on the ice, derelicts and weather information that should be provided but less so information related to navigation and charting.

The Radio Navigation Warning Service was developed to fulfil the SOLAS requirement for ships to receive safety broadcasts. It was the forerunner of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), the IHO/IMO World-Wide Navigational Warning Service and the WMO/IMO Worldwide Met-Ocean Information and Warning Service. This cooperation continues with the operational implementation into the GMDSS of new mobile satellite service providers recognised by the IMO.The International Hydrographic Bureau, now known as the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), and the Meteorological Congress, now the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), worked closely together from the time of the first SOLAS Convention in 1914 to maintain, develop and refine maritime safety information (MSI). MSI covers both navigational warnings, and meteorological forecasts and warnings to ensure the safety of navigation and safety of life at sea. The cooperation between the two Organizations has led to a harmonization of procedures and regulations and the standardization of warning message formats for ease of transmission and clarity of understanding by the maritime customer.


Ocean floor data

The IHO and WMO have other common interests and goals, including the provision of accurate early warning information to coastal communities, which remains a considerable challenge. WMO and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO have both supported their members to develop models to predict the impacts of coastal inundations including from tsunamis and storm surge; however, the lack of complete high-resolution depth data for coastal zones, particularly coastal areas shallower than 1 000 metres, degrades the accuracy of these models. Depth data, and the information it provides about the seafloor, is also central to a better understanding of other ocean processes.

The IHO has several initiatives aimed at increasing the depth data of the ocean floor:

  • a citizen science initiative, known as Crowdsourced Bathymetry (CSB), and
  • a joint IHO/IOC General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) Project and its subordinate Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.

All these initiatives aim to provide a complete picture of the ocean floor from its deepest parts to the very edge of the land – information that is a vital foundation dataset for models created by WMO and IOC Members. As shape of the seafloor influences ocean circulation, which in turn has an impact on the climate and the atmosphere, the depth data could also be used to refine and improve the accuracy of climate change impact models.

Two boats colliding caused a double ship wreck off the coast of Constanta, RomaniaTwo boats colliding caused a double ship wreck off the coast of Constanta, Romania (Kongsberg Maritime)


Delivering as one

There is also a strong human element to the IHO and WMO collaboration. As part of the Joint1 Capacity Building Coordination effort, the IHO and WMO identify and enact opportunities to develop and build capacity amongst the developing coastal states and small island developing states (SIDS). Their collaboration focuses in particular on the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Islands and the coastal states of Africa. The United Nations “delivering as one” approach is at the centre of this coordinated effort to maximize the impact of limited resources and to ensure sustainability of the states to meet the objectives of the IHO and WMO as well as their obligations related to SOLAS, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international instruments.

In the century that has passed since the sinking of the Titanic, the titles of the Organizations have changed and the methods have evolved, however, the goals and objective have remained the same: safety of navigation, safety of life at sea and protection of the marine environment. These will be the corner stones of IHO/WMO collaboration going forward. The digital world promises further breakthrough and developments for the navigational and meteorological information overlays that display on bridge systems and inform life-saving decisions.




1 IHO, IMO, WMO, IOC-UNESCO, International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), International Marine Pilot’s Association (IMPA)