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Here’s how COVID-19 is impacting weather forecasting

Less airplane traffic is increasing the margin of error in weather models

Orlando, FLA. – It seems as though the coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our daily lives this year. But did you know that COVID-19 has even affected weather forecasts?

According to a recent study by Dr. Ying Chen, a senior research associate at Lancaster University’s Environment Center, the large drop in airline travel has caused a significant impact on the accuracy of weather forecasts.

World Meteorological Organization : Air Travel January 2020
World Meteorological Organization : Air Travel January 2020
Air travel in May 2020.
Air travel in May 2020.

By the end of March, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown caused the elimination of about 75-80% of aircraft observations globally, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Chen looked at this year’s forecast accuracy from March through May and compared it to the average accuracy from March to May 2017-2019. He found that the accuracy of the surface meteorology forecast in March-May 2020 “decreased remarkably.”

How do airplanes help forecast models?

“Aircraft observations from commercial airlines around the world are a critical component of global meteorological observations,”Chen said.

During flight, aircraft continually record data, including wind speeds and the amount of moisture in the air. That information is then used on a global scale in forecast model runs.

Forecast accuracy is highly dependent on the quality of initial factors. For example, if a model starts with inaccurate information, like temperatures or windspeeds, the long-range forecast will evolve, and the margin of error will grow.

The data is especially important in tropical weather. Besides satellites, aircraft and ships play a vital role in weather data collection, since observations over the open ocean are limited.

Simply put, forecast model accuracy is only as good as the accuracy of its data doing in.

World Meteorological Organization: Global Observing System
World Meteorological Organization: Global Observing System

What regions are being affected the most?

Regions that tend to have the busiest air traffic, like North America, southeast China and Australia, have seen a large discrepancy in forecast modeling this year. But areas like western Europe have been able to compensate due to a high density of meteorological observation stations available there.

What does this mean for our weather forecasts?

Large errors in forecast models could cause delayed warnings of extreme and dangerous weather, resulting in additional hardships for residents. This is especially worrisome for the millions living along the coast during the peak of hurricane season.

A large margin of error in tropical models could mean large discrepancies on landfall, timing and the storm’s intensity.

Staying up to date with the latest tropical updates and advisories is key to preparing for whatever may come our way.

Unfortunately, the study warns that if impacts of the pandemic continue, “Further worsening of weather forecasts may be expected and that the error could become larger for longer-term forecasts”.


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