Four Years After Pledge, Israel Finally Funds Climate Forecast Technology

Israel commits 20 million shekels to new climate technology, but critics say it's still not enough

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Fire in the Jerusalem hills, last year.
Fire in the Jerusalem hills, last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israel announced Sunday that it would purchase the computer systems necessary to make detailed forecast of local changes caused by the global climate crisis, four years after it first pledged to approve the establishment of a center for such forecasts.

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The center, which the government plans to establish by June 2023, will have the ability to provide precise climate-change-related predictions and is intended to serve both government ministries and academic research.

A year ago, Haaretz reported that Israel relies for its climate change predictions on a computer that makes constant errors because it relies on outmoded climate models, limited to a low resolution of 50 kilometers, that many countries no longer use and which do not provide a reliable forecast.

This is because the government did not provide the Meteorological Service with the computer systems required to make more precise forecasts. For example, according to the rough models now in use in Israel, the average afternoon temperature in Jerusalem reads at 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Farenheit), but in fact, computations usually show it as 29 degrees. In another example, according to the current models, Jerusalem sees 250 millimeters of rainfall in the winter, while in fact the annual average is about 550 millimeters.

After the report, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli said she would raise the issue in budget meetings. The head of the Meteorological Service, Nir Stav – who will head the computation center – warned repeatedly throughout this past year that the precise database was required so decisions and preparations could take into account the damage wreaked by the climate crisis.

Stav tried to advance agreements among the various ministries involved to fund the project, and the government had approved the purchase in 2018, but the previous decision did not allocate funding for implementation. Sunday's announcement came after those six government ministries were able to reach an agreement on jointly funding it.

In the months after Haaretz’s report, and Stav’s and Michaeli’s work, the agreements were formulated, and the ministries ultimately pledged to earmark a total of 20 million shekels ($5.8 million) over five years to establish the center.

Environmental and academic sources criticized the government for taking four years to find such a small amount of money for Israel’s climate predictions, when the economic, health and transportation costs of unpreparedness for the climate crisis are particularly high. “It’s ridiculous that Israel spends tens and hundreds of millions without batting an eye on much more marginal issues. But on an issue that has been defined as the number one danger to humanity by the president of the United States, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, etc., Israel has trouble coming up with 4 million shekels,” said a source in one of the government ministries involved.

Merav Michaeli, this month.Credit: Emil Salman

Michaeli said the Transportation Ministry has prioritized dealing with and preventing the climate crisis at the top of its priorities. "I’m glad to say that we have partners in the government who realize the importance of immediate action on the matter," Michaeli said, saying that environmental policies are currently being overhauled including switching to electricity-based transportation.

Stav said that this is a "leap forward" in Israel's preparations for climate change, including understanding the number of required desalination facilities and drainage systems among other things. "Researchers will now have suitable computing resources to perform necessary climate simulations," he said. He added that the willingness to fund the project underlines their importance to the government ministries.

The new center will produce high-resolution climate computations for Israel and will publish reports of its findings that will be available for public review. Academic researchers will be able to make use of its data at no cost. The center will be established in coordination with a 270 million shekel government project to build a supercomputer. The supercomputer is intended to serve the security establishment, academic research and tech and public sectors.

Israel Meteorological Service Center, Bet Dagan, in 2020.Credit: Eyal Toueg

A month ago, Haaretz reported that the supercomputer would not make climate computations unless a special budget would be earmarked for this purpose. Sources familiar with the details said that after the report was published, officials decided to find a way to incorporate the forecasts in the work of the supercomputer and the Meteorological Service.

The government on Sunday also approved an inter-ministerial scientific steering committee to determine the way computer resources will be allocated to climate research. Stav will head the committee, and members will include the chairman of the National Academy of Science’s climate committee, Dr. Dan Yakir. Yakir, together with a multidisciplinary committee of experts on the climate crisis – which was established a few months ago by the National Academy of Science – wrote a sharply worded document concerning Israel’s lack of basic knowledge regarding climate forecasts.

Scientists have identified Israel as a particular hotspot in terms of sensitivity to climate change, due to its geographical location. Even today, Israel is warming at a significantly faster rate than the global average.

Haaretz reported that Israel’s warming rate has tripled in recent decades, and that the temperature in Israel has risen more than 1.5 degrees in that time.

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