The famed poet and novelist Oscar Wilde once said “conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” At the time of Wilde’s death in 1900, only five natural disasters had been recorded that year. Since the dawn of the last decade, that number has steadily been around 400.
These disasters include those derived from drought, floods, extreme weather, extreme temperature, landslides, dry mass movements, wildfires, volcanic activity, and earthquakes around the world. In 2021 alone, the Emergency Event Database (EM-DAT) recorded 432 disastrous events related to natural hazards worldwide, affecting over 100 million people and resulting in over 10,000 deaths.
During Wilde’s time, discussions of the weather may have been a reservation of the mundane, but when climate change has increased the intensity, prevalence, resilience, and fatality of extreme weather events, conversations about the weather become anything but monotonous. On the contrary, conversations about how to better track the weather and prepare for climate disaster becomes a refuge of the innovative.
Over the last month, monsoon flooding has left a third of Pakistan underwater. Hurricane Fiona has spiraled throughout the Caribbean and has hit Canada. 2022 has seen Nigeria's worst flooding in years, displacing 100,000 people. England is facing its worst drought in 500 years, intensifying wildfires throughout the country. And China is experiencing its worst heatwave on record. Most recently, Hurricane Ian has made landfall in Cuba and Florida is bracing for Category 4-level damage.
Lately, the weather has become the focus of many startups. A sample of investments in the space pulled by Crunchbase – which tracks trends, investments, and news of global companies from start-ups to the Fortune 1000 – shows that at least 23 companies with weather-related business models have raised funding since last year.
Together, these companies have garnered approximately $880 million. Why? Because at present, many tools of weather and weather-risk forecasting are unimaginative in meeting the challenges that our future holds.
And federal agencies are beginning to partner with these startups.
Last year during the Atlantic hurricane season, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began partnering with Saildrone, which as the name implies, is a sailing drone startup. The Alameda, California-based company has raised $190 million to date for its sea drones, which provide data for climate, mapping, and maritime security use cases.
This season, NOAA is partnering with the startup again to capture footage at the eye of Hurricane Fiona. Named the Saildrone Explorer SD 1078, the 23-foot robot will gather data on all parts of the tropical storm in order to improve researchers’ understanding of how hurricanes intensify into violent storms that cause floods, landslides, and disastrous winds.
SD 1078 is one of the company's seven “hurricane” saildrones that have been operating in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico during this hurricane season.
Understanding the storms’ physical processes is vital to improving forecasting, which according to the company, is expected to reduce the casualties of human life by enabling better preparedness in coastal communities. This data is funneled directly to NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML).
Aside from its partnership with Saildrone, NOAA also has underwater gliders, surface drifters, profiling floats, and aerial assets as part of a larger endeavor to better understand hurricane intensification.
“Uncrewed systems in the air, on the ocean surface, and underwater have the potential to transform how NOAA meets its mission to better understand the environment,” Captain Philip Hall, director of NOAA’s Uncrewed Systems Operations Center, said in a press release. The center is providing funding for the Saildrone effort.
Saildrone isn’t alone in its quest for better climate security. Just yesterday, Spire Global was awarded a $4 million contract from NOAA to leverage their remote sensing data for weather forecasting from the ultimate vantage point: space.
This is the fourth contract NOAA has awarded the San Francisco-based startup. Collectively the contracts are valued at $23.6 million. According to the company, a partnership between startups like Spire and federal agencies is vital in our current period of climate change.
“In this era of extreme weather, the need to leverage data from space to deliver more accurate weather forecasts has never been more critical. NOAA’s continued priority to collaborate with earth observation companies allows us to better predict, adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Kamal Arafeh, Senior Vice President of Global Sales at Spire said in a statement.
Several startups are joining Spire in the race to take weather tech to space. Earlier this month, Tomorrow Companies Inc. (Tomorrow.io), which works to provide clients with the information they need to anticipate and mitigate storm-related risks, completed the assembly and testing of its first precipitation radar. The radar is to be integrated into a satellite with space infrastructure company Astro Digital. Their first client is the U.S. Air Force.
By 2023 Tomorrow.io is expected to launch its first satellite. In addition to making sure the Air Force is aware of weather events, the satellite is expected to enhance the Department of Defense's ability to bolster weather observations around the globe.
Other startups like GeoOptics and PlanetIQ are also supplying NOAA with data from the stars.
Descending lower into the atmosphere, Urban Sky is also gathering critical data, but instead of using satellites in space or drones at sea, the Denver-based startup is using balloons in the stratosphere.
Urban Sky says its high-res images and data come at a much lower cost than that from satellites, aircraft, and drones. But more importantly, from its stratospheric vantage point, Urban Sky’s balloons capture real-time monitoring of urban areas, remote areas, and wildfires. According to the company, its remote sensing enables rapid situational awareness over large floodplains, fires, and other emergencies.
Coming back down to Earth, startups like One Concern are working to make “disasters less disastrous.” In August the company used its artificial intelligence modeling products to map the impacts of potentially hazardous events like flooding, storm surges, and heavy rainfall from Japan’s infamous supertyphoons, earthquakes, and hurricanes.
Partnering with six additional municipalities across the country, the California-based startup uses AI for disaster mitigation efforts, helping city planners tackle climate scenarios by designing evacuation measures and emergency shelter plans.
Also in the Earth’s sphere, venture-backed satellite firms, such as ICEYE and Planet, are providing detailed imagery of a storm's impact on land to help disaster assistance providers to analyze the damage, even far from the coasts.
Leading companies in the space like Climavision and Jupiter Intelligence also made splashes in Cruchbase’s report for their large funding rounds for proprietary weather forecasting tools and fire, flood, and wind climate risk analytics respectively.
A trend pulls through the influx of weather-related startups. Gathering and predicting data from potential natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, tropical storms, and wildfires was once an endeavor fully tackled from the federal level.
Now, as climate change intensifies these disasters and expands the stretch of people and places affected, federal agencies can’t tackle the monumental task alone. Research, funding, and federal partnerships with companies are advancing in the sector, hopefully making the unpredictable a bit more predictable.
With innovation happening from land, sea, sky, and even space, conversations about the weather are anything but unimaginative.