Qantas aircraft grounded in Sydney

Is reduced aircraft traffic affecting the reliability of weather forecasts?

6 November 2020
Read Time: 2.2 mins

Earlier this year it was reported by some news outlets that the reliability of weather forecasts may suffer because of the extreme lack of air travel as a result of the pandemic. If you were wondering what air travel has to do with the accuracy of the weatherman you wouldn’t be alone. What most travellers are unaware of when flying, especially on commercial passenger planes, is that each aircraft is in fact the meteorologists’ secret weapon — weapon of mass data collection that is. 

For years, thousands of airliners and cargo planes have been involved in a side hustle that few have been privy to: gathering and transmitting weather data that’s then used for improving weather forecasting across the globe. Aircraft possess some of the most advanced electronic equipment available. 

Since 1998, the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) system has collected data from 43 airlines, using devices on thousands of aircraft. These aeroplanes continuously record air temperature and pressure, wind speed, turbulence and water vapour and relay this via radio or satellite. On the ground, meteorologists input this data, along with that from ocean buoys, weather balloons and ground stations, into weather prediction models.

Recent research has confirmed these early theories that circulated in May were in fact correct and that the lack of air traffic and therefore weather data has in fact had an impact on prediction systems across the world.

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. 

Alice Springs Airport Houses Planes Grounded Due To The Coronavirus Pandemic ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA - MAY 15: Grounded aeroplanes which include Airbus A380s, Boeing MAX 8s and other smaller aircrafts are seen at the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility on May 15, 2020 in Alice Springs, Australia.

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, as told to Science Daily.

The domino effects of weather forecast accuracy is far reaching in agriculture as well as the energy sector and stability of the electrical grid. Wind turbines rely on accurate readings of wind speed and energy companies are reliant on temperature predictions to forecast their systems energy load as people use more energy on hot days for things like air conditioning.

The study also showed the regions most impacted by the reduction in weather forecasts were those with usually heavy air traffic, like the US, southeast China and here in Australia, as well as isolated regions like the Sahara Desert, Greenland and Antarctica. 

Surprisingly the exception to this is Western Europe whose weather forecasts have been relatively unaffected despite the number of aircraft over the region dropping by 80-90%. Which is suspectedly due to its densely-packed network of ground-based weather stations.

The study found that overall 2020 forecasts during the pandemic were less accurate for temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and air pressure. While precipitation forecasts have so far been unaffected, scientists' ability to catch early warning signs of extreme weather events this summer could suffer. 

Sam Aldenton

Sam Aldenton is a Flight Centre writer, producer and social media specialist. When she's not off discovering the world’s best pizza (an obsession picked up from her 4-years in New York), she is based in Brisbane, Australia. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @samaaldenton.