WeatherWeather Science


COVID-19's impacts on weather forecasting

Airplane ready for takeoff
Posted at 5:07 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 19:18:37-04

A press release issued on May 7 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has raised concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on weather observations and forecasts, as well as atmospheric and climate monitoring.

Because of the pandemic, meteorological measurements taken from commercial airplanes have dropped by an average of 75-80%. In the southern hemisphere, the loss is closer to 90%.

Commercial aircraft carriers use onboard sensors, computers and communication systems to automatically collect, process, format and transmit meteorological observations to ground stations via satellite or radio links.

The U.S. aviation industry provides this information to the NWS to support numerical weather prediction and other operational applications. More than 3,500 commercial aircraft normally provide over 250 million observations per year.

With business travel down and vacations being canceled or postponed, the airline industry is suffering. Travel figures from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) paint a detailed image of just how few people are flying right now. On Tuesday, May 12, TSA reported that 163,205 people passed through airport checkpoints. Last year on May 12, TSA said that a total of 2,191,387 people went through a security checkpoint. These numbers show the lack of people traveling in this current climate.

According to Maureen O'Leary, Deputy Director of Affairs with NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS), "Even though there is a reduction of commercial passenger flights, we still receive valuable aircraft data from the passenger flights that are continuing and from flights by cargo carriers."

In her e-mail to News 5, O'Leary stated that the decrease in airline traffic could negatively impact forecast model skill, but that it shouldn't translate into a reduction in forecast accuracy since the NWS also relies on data from other sources.

"In fact, 85% of observations that feed our global weather forecast model comes from polar-orbiting satellites," said O'Leary.

There's also surface-based weather stations and data that comes from weather balloons. Radiosondes are small instruments attached to weather balloons, and are used to take measurements throughout the atmosphere. Data from here can be used to supplement the missing data from grounded aircraft.

Other sources, such as marine buoys, satellite and radar also provide data that will be needed during this time to keep forecasts accurate, and our public safe and informed.