COVID-19 Has Affected Weather Forecasting, Study Says

The sharp decline in air traffic has affected the quality of weather forecasting models.
Chris Young

In the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic, organizations such as NASA pointed out satellite readings showing that strict lockdown restrictions seemed to be having a positive effect on the environment by reducing air pollution.

Now, it turns out that a different method for taking readings of the environment has been adversely affected by the pandemic: the sharp decline in air traffic during the coronavirus pandemic has greatly reduced the amount of atmospheric data collected by commercial airliners, a new study explains.


A sharp decline in air traffic and weather data

In their paper, the researchers showed that short-term forecasting models have a demonstrably worse forecast skill when they receive less data on temperature, wind, and humidity from aircraft.

While fewer data leading to worse forecasts is hardly a surprising finding, the research is notable for highlighting the hidden role that the aviation industry plays in weather forecasts — an effect that has been hindered by the ongoing pandemic.

As The New York Times explains, observations are made by instruments aboard thousands of airliners, mostly flying over North America and Europe, as part of a program that has been in place for decades.

This data is then are transmitted in real-time to forecasting organizations around the world, including the National Weather Service in the U.S.

The impact on weather forecasting in numbers

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, shows the specific impact of the reduction in data in numbers.

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Specifically, it says that eliminating 80 percent of the data produced errors that were equivalent to 30 to 60 percent of the errors that would have been made with no data at all.

As air traffic declined by about 75 percent or more worldwide near the beginning of the pandemic, the number of observations and data points dropped by roughly the same amount the researchers explain.

According to The New York Times, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has countered by saying that the reduction in data has so far had almost no real-world impact and that air traffic is slowly increasing once again.

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