COVID-19 and the weather forecaster

COVID-19 is having a significantly negative impact on weather forecasts around the globe. The pronouncement comes from new research published this month in the peer-reviewed American Geosciences Union Journal.

The study finds the world lost up to 75 percent of its aircraft weather observations between March and May because the pandemic grounded flights. Commercial aircraft are the second-most important airborne element in forecasting, after satellites. However, aircraft have an edge over satellites in terms of accuracy because they are physically present inside the actual weather system rather than looking at it from high up in the sky.

The research was conducted by Ying Chen, senior researcher at the Lancaster Environment Centre in the United Kingdom. In an email interview, Chen said the sensors used by all airlines are standardized.

“All the sensors have to follow the criteria set by the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) AMDAR (Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay) program,” said Chen.

“The data is monitored operationally by the United States National Center for Environmental Prediction as part of WMO data protocols.”

Aircraft typically inform meteorologists by transmitting data on air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and wind along their flight path. With significantly fewer planes in the sky now, forecasts of these conditions have become less accurate and the impact is more pronounced as forecasts extend further out in time, says the study.

According to the lead author, accuracy of weather forecasts has an obvious impact on agriculture. However, it also affects the energy sector and stability of electrical grids. Wind turbines rely on accurate forecasts of wind speed. Energy companies depend on temperature forecasts to predict what the energy load will be each day as people crank up their air conditioning.

Chen’s research found a large deterioration in forecasts of surface meteorology over global regions with busy air flights, such as North America, southeastern China and Australia.

Forecasts over remote regions were also substantially worse this spring, compared to 2017‐19. The study found large impacts over areas such as Greenland, Siberia, Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. This could handicap early warning of extreme weather and cause additional economic damage on top of that from the pandemic itself. The impact over Western Europe is buffered by the high density of conventional observations.

Chen is optimistic that this isn’t a long-term problem.

“Sooner or later this pandemic will be over, and we will back to normal. I hope it is sooner.”

AGU is a global organization supporting 130,000 Earth and space science experts.

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