Interview: Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO

By S Castonguay WMO Secretariat

Vladimir Ryabinin of the Russian Federation was appointed as the new Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO at the level of Assistant Director-General (ADG) of UNESCO on 1 March 2015. Mr Ryabinin went to IOC from WMO, where he was a Senior Scientific Officer in the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) from 2001 to 2015. His years of experience with WMO will surely benefit the close cooperation between the two organizations. The Bulletin is pleased to introduce him to our readers through the interview below. 

Why did you choose oceanography as a career and what enticed you to study the climate? How do you see the relation between oceanography, meteorology and climatology?

When snorkeling at the age of 12, I saw something at the bottom of the sea that looked to me like the submerged ruins of an ancient town. The strong emotions experienced during that dive triggered my interest in the ocean. Largely under the influence of books by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, I decided to become an underwater archeologist. However, having attended a special school for mathematically gifted children, I was predisposed to mathematical methods of research. As a result, in 1978 I graduated at the top of the engineer-oceanographer class of the Faculty of Oceanology of the then Leningrad Hydrometeorological Institute (now the Russian State Hydrometeorological University). In the same year, I was honoured to be admitted as a post-graduate student to the highly-respected school of theoretical oceanography at the Hydrometcentre of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

For the next 20 years, until 1998, I worked at the Hydrometcentre in different capacities, from junior researcher to head of marine prediction research laboratory. My PhD thesis in 1982 and my first monograph in 1986 were devoted to an analytical study of the ocean baroclinic layer, the “thermocline”, and the ocean circulation.

In the mid-1980s my professional path took a sudden turn, when I was assigned to work in a small group of selected young scientists on the development of the first Soviet technology for medium-range weather prediction. My task was to implement parameterizations of sub-grid physical processes (turbulence, clouds, surface processes) into the predictive atmospheric model. This was how oceanographic and meteorological paths crossed for me. My previous studies on the modelling of turbulence in stratified liquids were instrumental in fulfilling the assignment. The group successfully completed the project, and in mid-1980s the USSR started to issue medium-range weather predictions.

The experience gained in this work was the cornerstone of my doctor of sciences (degree equivalent to senior doctorate or habilitation in some countries) thesis, which was devoted to combining atmospheric and marine meteorological forecasting. I defended it in 1995. After that, I conducted research in a number of environmental disciplines and developed some other models. The one dearest to me is a spectral third-generation wind wave model with an implicit semi-Lagrangian numerical scheme permitting exceptionally long time steps. It was demonstrated at the World EXPO 1998 in Lisbon.

So, for me, meteorology and oceanography simply cannot be separated. They are the closest parts of the Earth System science and go well together under the term “hydrometeorology”. I would define the science of climatology as a longer-term synthesis of atmospheric science, oceanography, land surface science, and hydrology that is founded on mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology and which increasingly implicates governance, economics, behavioural sciences and sociology.

Vladimir Ryabinin’s first ocean cruise in 1976 

IOC and WMO have a longstanding history of cooperation in ocean sciences and observations. In your opinion, what are its most important achievements?

The fact that the predecessor to WMO, the International Meteorological Organization, was established in 1873 as an outcome of the first international conference of marine meteorologists held in 1853 in Brussels illustrates well the importance of oceans to the Organization. The goal of that Conference was “establishing a uniform system of meteorological observations at sea, and of concurring a general plan of observation on the winds and currents of the ocean”.

The broad cooperation of IOC and WMO has been widely discussed, most recently in January 2015 in Geneva at the meeting between the officers and Secretariats of the two organizations. The IOC was established in 1960, and the first joint WMO-IOC project, the Integrated Global Ocean Services (initially Stations) System, started in 1967. The current highlights in our cooperation are the co-sponsorship of several fundamental observing systems, the Joint WMO-IOC Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), and WCRP.

But what I would really like to emphasize is the extreme complementarity of our agencies. IOC leads on ocean observations via the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). WMO leads on the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and runs a system for prediction and early warnings for meteorological and hydrological events of fast and slow onset. IOC leads on tsunami warnings. Through JCOMM, marine meteorological hazards are predicted. WCRP studies the predictability of longer-term events, such as droughts, and its work on sea-level rise assesses coastal zone risks. This means that our products and services cover practically all predictable natural hazards in the Earth system. Their value to humanity cannot be overestimated, and I believe that their efficiency and sustainability will be further facilitated through the enhanced use of the multi-hazard early warning systems. This approach is spearheaded by the WMO and was endorsed by the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March 2015. The complementarity of WMO and IOC also opens the perspective of expanding our joint work particularly in the areas of education and training and more generally in capacity development.

What are the challenges ahead for WMO-IOC cooperation?

My service for WMO started in 1984 when I was appointed the WMO Regional Association II (Asia) Rapporteur on specialized marine meteorological services. Among other notable roles, I recall working as the Chair of the WMO Commission for Marine Meteorology Working Group on Wind Waves. In mid-1990s while at WMO, I got involved in IOC activities, namely, the development of GOOS, through its Strategy Subcommittee and, later, as a vice-chair of the GOOS Intergovernmental Committee. I was also a member of the JCOMM transition team. With this multi-decadal experience, I could not help but develop a sense of ownership of and care for the ocean-related work in both IOC and WMO.

In my view, the main challenge ahead is to sustain and enhance the observing systems and related services under ever more stringent financial limitations and to guide their development with the aim of maximizing their contributions to sustainable development. Greater awareness creation and even stronger coordination of WMO and IOC activities will be required to meet this challenge. I think that complementarity of IOC and WMO calls for developing joint strategies and plans.

Fast technological developments are supporting the growth of operational oceanography and the provision of ocean forecasting services to a number of economic sectors. How do you see the collaboration between WMO and IOC on this subject?

I think that oceanographic information services will continue to expand significantly. Population growth trends compel a green/blue economy for continued life support on our planet. IOC is spearheading the planning and preparatory work on the UN sustainable development goal on the oceans. In accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, IOC is the UN organization mandated for oceanographic capacity development and transfer of marine technology. I believe that the strategy for oceanographic support to sustainable development and the blue economy should be twofold. On one side, we need cutting edge oceanographic research. On the other, we need to mainstream practical oceanographic applications in areas such as the production of renewable energy, sustainable fisheries, mariculture, desalination of water, coastal zone management, tourism, conservation of marine biodiversity, support to marine reserves, shipping, and so on.

Each of these applications requires research, observations, related international standards, and capacity development. Both IOC and WMO should continue to support such services and their expansion, while working in coordination with the private sector. Ocean observations and their assimilation into models are a prerequisite for all long-range predictions. I spent at least two years working on the Research and Modelling plan for the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS), and I keep hoping that we will start to implement the ideas outlined in the plan.

In your opinion, how can science-based organizations like WMO and IOC facilitate the translation of results from monitoring and research into policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

IOC is working very hard to raise awareness about the role of the ocean in climate and about the adverse impacts on the ocean of anthropogenic climate change. A key message to the world is that the ocean is getting “hot, sour, and breathless”! A new line of cooperation between IOC and WMO is in monitoring carbon, which includes reporting on ocean acidification through the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

The translation of results from monitoring and research into policies is most important. On one side, climate science has presented to the world a very telling, convincing and worrying message on the future climate. This message is corroborated by past and current observations. A similar SOS message is coming from researchers in biodiversity. If nothing is done, a bleak future of conflict and extreme scarcity of basic life- support amenities lies ahead. But on the other side, the reaction of decision-makers to these messages is far from sufficient.

There are clear reasons for this inaction. On a “macro scale”, our political systems are suitable to address national problems but much less so global issues. The UN and international organizations fill this important gap in governance. As individuals, homo sapiens reacts efficiently to imminent threats, giving them priority over less obvious (theoretical) or delayed risks, such as those associated with the climate change. The classic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approach, “policy relevant but not policy prescriptive” identifies the threat well but falls short on triggering action.

Therefore, I think that WMO and IOC should strive to encourage scientists to act as honest brokers of adaptation and mitigation measures. Also, the knowledge and “spirit” of sustainable development should be a part of the modern education system, culture and ethics. This is where UNESCO comes in. Last but not least, we need to engage youth and strive to promote among them important values, such as honesty and modesty, interests in science, art, culture and sports, and to discourage egoism and excessive consumption. Leading by example is key.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and the IOC Executive Secretary Vladimir Ryabinin meeting with IOC Chair Peter Haugan and IOC Vice-Chairs Stephen Hall, Alexander Postnov, Somkiat Khokiattiwong and Ariel Hernan Troisi. These IOC officers were elected by the 28th IOC Assembly in June 2015

The Arctic and Antarctic are witnessing rapid and dramatic transformations and the environmental and socioeconomic consequences are felt far beyond. How can IOC and WMO contribute to address these issues?

My work in the Arctic started in 1989 when I was the principal investigator of a study of bottom ice gouging in the Baydaratskaya Bay, which was a part of an environmental impact assessment for a large offshore project in the Kara Sea. This engineering study required cutting edge environmental research. It was completed in the mid 1990s and gave me a sense of the complexity and sensitivity of the Arctic. In the 2000s, my polar work continued under WMO and WCRP, including the Arctic Climate System Study (ACSYS) and Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) projects and support for the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (IPY). Large investments into research during IPY resulted in a number of scientific successes, but polar observing systems and services still remain well below par. There are several reasons, chief among them are the severity of the polar environment, shortage of resources and the resultant waning of ambition on a number of international attempts to establish such systems.

Since 2011, a team of like-minded colleagues from leading international agencies has been studying the “polar challenge”. The team, of which I am a part, has agreed that “what happens in the poles, does not stay in the poles” and that “changes in the Arctic outpace our understanding”. As no single organization is in position to achieve its polar objectives on its own, we have also agreed that there is a strong need for a common plan for polar research, observations and services to which organizations with polar interests would contribute.

WMO and its sponsored programs, such as World Weather Research Programme and WCRP, run a number of successful polar projects and initiatives. The WMO Executive Council Panel of Experts on Polar and High Mountain Observations, Research and Services (EC-PHORS) acts as a WMO-based platform for coordination of polar and alpine activities. I believe that all agencies, including WMO – a leader in polar activities – would gain a lot from establishing a true multi-agency polar partnership, which would engage with all key stakeholders on an equal footing.

The proposed International Polar Partnership Initiative (IPPI), further development of which was endorsed in 2015 by both 17th World Meteorological Congress and 28th IOC Assembly, is at present the most effective way to strengthen coordination between the organizations, increase the efficiency of polar work, create incentives for investments into polar activities, and move polar observations, research and services forward with the engagement of local and indigenous people. Only joint work, together with end users, can sustain polar activities into the future.

Is there a message you would like to convey to the WMO community?

This interview gives me an opportunity to publicly thank three persons of particular importance to my professional development. From the period before I joined the WMO Secretariat, Gunnar Kullenberg, an IOC Executive Secretary who is still remembered with profound admiration by its long-serving staff, ingrained in me the interest in ocean governance, and I still feel indebted to him for the great credit accorded to me when I was selected by him and Elisabeth Mann Borgese to serve as the Executive Director of the International Ocean Institute. My work as a manager will always be fashioned by the example of my first WCRP Director, David Carson, a hallmark of tact, honesty, sense of humour and professionalism. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, a true leader and self-sacrificing defender of culture, world heritage, rights for education and ethical values of the world, is a source of inspiration for my work as Executive Secretary of IOC. 

Vladimir Ryabinin and former IOC Executive Secretary Gunnar Kullenberg at the Headquarters of the International Ocean Institute, Malta, in spring 2000 

I am motivated and honoured to lead the highly professional and devoted team of the IOC Secretariat, but I will never forget the exciting work for WMO – for 14 years as a staff member and more than for 30 years as an expert. I met so many wonderful people in the WMO community and many of them became my friends. Unfortunately, the Bulletin would not give me the space to name them all. I wish to deeply thank them for being a part of my life.

It is my distinct pleasure and honour to warmly congratulate Dr Petteri Taalas on his election by the 17th World Meteorological Congress as the new WMO Secretary-General and to wish him great success in leading the Organization towards new professional heights. I am sure that cooperation between WMO and IOC will help us to make this world a better and safer place to live in. 

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