Weather forecasts have become less accurate during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the reduction in commercial flights, experts have announced. A study estimates the world lost as much as 75 percent of its aircraft weather observations between March and May when many flights were grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Planes inform weather forecasts by recording information about air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and wind along their flight path.
If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid
Dr Ying Chen
With far fewer planes in action this spring, forecasts of these meteorological conditions have become less accurate and the impact is exaggerated as long-term weather forecasts, according to the study.
Although weather forecasts are a helpful way to plan your daily life, inaccurate predictions can also impact the economy, according to Dr Ying Chen, a senior research associate at the Lancaster Environment Center, 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.
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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 turn their air conditioning to full blast.
Dr Chen said: “If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid.
“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.
This includes the US, southeast China and Australia, as well as isolated regions like the Sahara Desert, Greenland and Antarctica.
Western Europe is a surprising exception, with its weather forecasts have been relatively unaffected despite the number of aircraft over the region dropping by 80 to 90 percent.
The researchers speculated the region has avoided inaccuracies because it has a densely-packed network of ground-based weather stations and balloon measurements to compensate for the lack of planes.
Dr Chen said: “It’s a good lesson which tells us we should introduce more observation sites, especially in the regions with sparse data observations.
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“This will help us to buffer the impacts of this kind of global emergency in the future.”
Forecast models are more accurate when a greater number of meteorological observations are taken into account.
The Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay program is comprised of over 3,500 aircraft and 40 commercial airlines, usually providing more than 700,000 meteorological reports on a daily basis.
When Chen compared the accuracy of weather forecasts from March to May to the same periods in previous years, he found the 2020 forecasts were less accurate for temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and air pressure.
This is despite the fact that in February before flights were significantly impacted, weather forecasts were more accurate than in previous years.
The study also discovered rainfall forecasts worldwide have not been significantly affected.
This is because precipitation forecasts are able to rely on satellite observations.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has coincided with a relatively spell in most of the world.
Dr Chen consequently cautioned rainfall forecasts could potentially suffer as the hurricane and monsoon seasons arrive.
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