Cascading impacts: COVID-19’s influence on weather forecasts

Storm Team 2

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- The global shutdown from the pandemic has had numerous cascading effects, including impacting our forecast models. To understand how I must first explain how a weather model creates a forecast.

I’ve already explained at length how they work in a previous Moment of Science, but to put it simply: weather models predict what may happen in the future by solving complex mathematical equations over and over again. 

Supercomputers do the heavy lifting but calculating the forecast is still a process with some steps more valuable than others.

“One of the most important parts of computer models are the initial conditions- those are the observations that go into the computer models,” explains Steve Rowley from the Charleston National Weather Service office.

“The more data that can come into weather models, the better the initial conditions, and then the better the forecast will be as we take those initial conditions and extend them out through time.”

Gaps between observations led to more assumptions that weather models have to make. But this can lead to errors further in the future. As such, meteorologists gather as many weather observations as possible! On the ground. Up in the air. On land. At sea! You might be surprised where some of these weather observations come from.

“ Cruise ships for instance give us a lot of data over data-sparse areas over the oceans. Commercial airliners carry equipment that takes measurements from the surface all the way to cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. That’s a very important source of data.” 

Oh.

“With less airlines, that’s having an impact on the amount of data coming into computer models.”  

A recent study found “a significant deterioration in forecasts” from March to May due to the reduction of air traffic and cruise lines reporting temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind information. Most notably, aircraft observations dropped by 50-75 percent in the three-month span.

These impacts were reduced in North America as we have lots of ways to gather weather information other than aircraft which compensates for the lost data. Areas without numerous weather stations or balloon launches, such as the oceans or remote areas like Greenland or the Southern Hemisphere- were much more vulnerable. 

Before you ask: this should have really no impact on hurricane forecasting whatsoever in the Atlantic basin.

While tropical systems do form in these data-sparse areas, weather satellites and reconnaissance missions with Hurricane Hunter aircraft will continue to provide valuable weather information without any reduction in quantity or quality this season. 

The bottom line is that this pandemic has taught us a lot, including the importance of weather observations by showing what happens when we lose what we’ve always had.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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