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One More Coronavirus Problem: Accurate Weather Forecasts

Commercial planes provide weather forecasters with vital data, so widespread flight cancellations could hurt local weather reports.
Silas Stein
DPA/AFP via Getty Images
Commercial planes provide weather forecasters with vital data, so widespread flight cancellations could hurt local weather reports.

Widespread cancellations of commercial flights are creating problems for meteorologists around the world. That's because weather forecasting models rely on temperature and wind data gathered by thousands of planes flying overhead.

The National Weather Service uses more than 250 million measurements from aircraft every year, which are fed into complex weather computer models. As of the end of March, meteorological data provided by U.S. aircraft had dropped by half.

The World Meteorological Organization says it's "concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the quantity and quality of weather observations and forecasts."

But NOAA officials say while it's still too early to tell, the drop won't necessarily lead to less accurate weather reports since they're finding ways to compensate.

"While there is a reduction of commercial passenger flights, we still receive valuable aircraft data from overnight cargo and package carriers," says NOAA spokesperson Lauren Gaches. "We also collect billions of Earth observations from other sources that feed into our models, such as weather balloons, surface weather observation network, radar, satellites and buoys."

Weather forecasters in Europe are facing the same decline. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts reports a 80% drop in meteorological readings due to cancellations of commercial flights. According to their study, removing all aircraft data from weather models reduces accuracy by 15%.

Other parts of the world are also at risk. Most U.S. weather monitoring stations on the ground send information automatically, but in many developing nations, that data is collected manually by observers. Radar stations are still few and far between in some countries.

The World Meteorological Organization reports seeing "a significant decrease in the availability of this type of manual observations over the last two weeks," potentially a big concern if the coronavirus pandemic drags on through seasons of floods, hurricanes, and other weather-related disasters where early warnings are critical.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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