When air traffic fell, “the accuracy of the surface weather forecast for March-May 2020 declined dramatically,” according to Dr Ying Chen, senior research associate at Lancaster University’s Environmental Center.
Chen looked at the weather forecast for those months and compared it to the actual weather conditions observed during the same period. The researcher found that the accuracy of short-term forecasts for temperature, pressure, and wind speed had deteriorated over those months, sometimes more significantly from location to location. The discovery came as forecast accuracy is expected to improve in 2020, he added.
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“Every year the forecast improves. The models are getting better and better, ”said Anthony Farnell, chief meteorologist of Global News.
“This is the first year that it takes a step back. We go back about five years in terms of our forecasting skills. We haven’t had this for decades.
What is happening?
The data that helps meteorologists create forecasts comes from a variety of tools.
Data is collected by satellites, open water buoys, weather balloons, scattered weather stations and radar. It also comes from planes and cruise ships – two things the pandemic has reduced.
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The computer models rely heavily on aircraft data, Farnell said. Without it, measurements of temperature, humidity and wind speed in sparsely populated areas – like the Arctic – are difficult to collect.
“Flight data is definitely very important,” said Farnell.
“The more data you have, the better your computer models will be. Thus, weather balloons are launched daily, but these only come from a few specific places. You cannot replace aircraft data with bubble data. This is the problem. When you lose those planes, you lose a lot of those numbers. ”
Commercial air traffic declined significantly over the March-May period examined in the study.
“It was around March 11 that the bottom really started to fall,” said Ian Petchenik of Flightradar24, a global online flight tracking service.
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Although there was a “slight downward trend” during the last week of January, when China began to cut back on air traffic, February and early March “saw nothing much”.
Data from FlightRadar shows that commercial flights fell only 3.9% in the first week of March compared to the same period in 2019. By the last week of the month, it had fallen to 60.9%.
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April and May saw the biggest drops. In April, total commercial flights were down 73.7% from 2019 and 70.8% in May.
Changes were also seen in flight routes, said Petchenik, as in-service flights could benefit from “more direct and economical routing” due to the lack of traffic.
Farnell said if he had seen the effects, it was difficult to pin down the blame.
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“During the spring I saw some computer models that weren’t up to par, especially at the end of our seven-day forecast. From the fourth to the seventh day and beyond, we started to see great variations, ”he says.
“But it’s hard to quantify whether a forecast missed the mark because of this or something else.”
Long term impacts
The study found that remote areas experienced the biggest problems with forecasting accuracy.
Flight data is much more crucial in areas like Greenland and Siberia, Chen notes, because other conventional measurement tools are “very limited.”
For similar reasons, data loss is also greater for the northern hemisphere than for the south.
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These concerns have been shared by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In May, he estimated that measurements taken from aircraft had fallen by an average of 75 to 80 percent from normal. In the southern hemisphere, the loss is closer to 90%, he said.
While not detailed in the study, Canada will also feel the brunt of the data loss, Farnell said.
“We are a smaller population. We are dispersed over such a large landmass and we do not have weather stations everywhere. In addition, we are a popular flight path. Many flights go up and over the far north of Canada as they travel the planet, ”he said.
“No one flies over Greenland or the Canadian Far North anymore. We have no other data. It’s a big gap. ”
Concerns are greater now that the United States and others are heading into peak hurricane season.
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With air traffic still at unusually low levels, the data that make up hurricane forecasting models will take a hit. Farnell said there are plans to increase the number of hurricane fighters, or surveillance missions, to try to populate computer models with valuable data.
“The hurricane season is expected to be very active,” he said. “We therefore hope that this will compensate for the lack of data on the planes this summer.”
But improvements could be on the horizon.
As many countries started to reopen, air traffic density began to increase, said Petchenik of Flightradar24. It was slow until May, he said, but accelerated until June as airlines increased the total number of available flights.
“Think of it like different board lengths at different inclines. For each month, we see a similar ramp-up as airlines add a significant number of flights at the start of each month, ”he said. “It was the same for May and June, they reconfigured their schedules, added a number of flights and we saw that increase happen throughout every month.”
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So far in July, FlightRadar has seen a plateau in both the total number of flights and commercial flights worldwide.
Petchenik believes this is attributable to a “setback” in North America, particularly the United States, “because Americans aren’t really allowed to go anywhere.”
It’s unclear whether the gap in the data has long-term implications, as Chen’s research suggests, Farnell said.
“Right now, with the rise of planes, things are better, and that may not have a detrimental effect on some of these models in the longer term,” he said.
“But it is certainly possible. Everything depends. Will there be a second wave? How long will this last? ”
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