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The Slow Down In Air Travel Has Made Weather Predictions Less Accurate

United Airlines planes sit parked at San Francisco International Airport on July 08, 2020 in San Francisco, California. As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic continues, United Airlines has sent layoff warnings to 36,000 of its front line employees to give them a 60-day notice that furloughs or pay cuts could occur after October 1.
United Airlines planes sit parked at San Francisco International Airport on July 08, 2020 in San Francisco, California. As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic continues, United Airlines has sent layoff warnings to 36,000 of its front line employees to give them a 60-day notice that furloughs or pay cuts could occur after October 1.
Image: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

It’s really interesting, to me, the way COVID-19 has affected our everyday lives in unexpected ways. Last week, we reported on NPR losing a quarter of its listeners after a dramatic drop in American commutes, and now it seems our reduced rate of flying and taking cruises is affecting the accuracy of weather forecasts.

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A study out this week from Lancaster University’s Environment Centre found that temperature readings were off by 0.5 to 1.5 Celsius, with errors found in relative humidity, wind speed, and pressure readings as well. The problem was particularly pronounced in remote areas where plane traffic is now next to non-existent. CNN has the scoop:

The forecasts that meteorologists create for hurricanes rely in part on computer models. These models are only as good as the data that is put into them.

This data comes from a variety of tools, including aircraft, cruise ships, satellites, buoys, weather balloons, ground stations, and radar. The Covid-19 outbreak has significantly reduced the amount of data we get from two of those tools — aircraft and cruises.

More importantly, meteorologists find themselves at a greater disadvantage, especially over water, where these observation tools are already limited. Over land, they can just launch extra weather balloons or add additional ground stations to help make up the loss of flight data.

But they can’t do that over water. Buoys are unevenly distributed and are notorious for data errors. These floating devices alone can’t provide a complete and accurate picture of a particular region of the ocean. Meteorologists need the combination of all available tools to accurately understand the state of the atmosphere across the globe at a given point in time.

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The study notes that COVID-19 eliminated 50 to 75 percent of aircraft meteorological observations from March to May of this year. Cruise ships also play a role in reporting weather data back to scientists and are also no longer plying the waves as they once did. This loss of data integrity is especially worrisome during hurricane season when a few degrees of temperature or a sudden change in pressure can mean the difference between a superstorm and a rainy afternoon. The study suggests building more weather observation posts and launching more weather balloons to make up for this loss in raw data. Governments can also increase hurricane hunter reconnaissance missions that fly out specifically to collect atmospheric data.

It’s an incredible example of how interconnected the world really is and how important data has become, though it is not a lesson worth losing now over 141,000 Americans to this disease to learn. And just like COVID-19, the study suggests our weather prediction problem will get worse before it gets better.

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

Braniff747SP

What’s special about cruise ships? Freighter traffic hasn’t declined. Are only cruise ships plugged into this weather network?