Weather forecasts have become less accurate during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the reduction in commercial flights, according to new research.
A new study in AGU's journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the world lost 50-75% of its aircraft weather observations between March and May of this year when many flights were grounded due to the pandemic.
Aircraft typically inform weather forecasts by recording information about air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure, and wind along their flight path.
With significantly fewer planes in the sky this spring, forecasts of these meteorological conditions have become less accurate and the impact is more pronounced as forecasts extend further out in time, according to the study, which is part of an ongoing special collection of research in AGU journals related to the current pandemic.
Weather forecasts are an essential part of daily life, but inaccurate forecasts can also impact the economy, according to Ying Chen, a senior research associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre in Lancaster, United Kingdom and lead author of the new study.
The accuracy of weather forecasts can impact agriculture as well as the energy sector and stability of the electrical grid. Wind turbines rely on accurate forecasts of wind speed and energy companies depend on temperature forecasts to predict what the energy load will be each day as people crank up their air conditioning.
"If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid," Chen said. "That could lead to a blackout, and I think this is the last thing we want to see in this pandemic."
The regions most impacted by the reduction in weather forecasts have been those with normally heavy air traffic, like the United States, southeast China, and Australia, as well as isolated regions like the Sahara Desert, Greenland and Antarctica.
Western Europe is a notable exception: its weather forecasts have been relatively unaffected despite the number of aircraft over the region dropping by 80-90%.
This was surprising, Chen said. Chen suspects the region has been able to avoid inaccuracies because it has a densely-packed network of ground-based weather stations and balloon measurements to compensate for the lack of aircraft.
It's a good lesson which tells us we should introduce more observation sites, especially in the regions with sparse data observations. This will help us to buffer the impacts of this kind of global emergency in the future." Ying Chen, Study Lead Author and Senior Research Associate, Lancaster Environment Centre in Lancaster, United Kingdom
Chen also found precipitation forecasts around the world have not been significantly affected, because rainfall forecasts have been able to rely on satellite observations. But March, April and May have been relatively dry this year in most of the world, so Chen cautions that precipitation forecasts could potentially suffer as the hurricane and monsoon seasons arrive. Comparing forecasts
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