While most industries have been hard-hit by the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, one hurting industry could have an impact on weather forecasts: aviation. Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, and United, along with cargo companies UPS and FedEx, participate in Aircraft Meteorological DAta Relay (AMDAR), a program created by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to collect weather data using sensors aboard. AMDAR data is digested into global computer forecast models that meteorologists used to assist in their forecast work.
Due to the pandemic, flying in America has collapsed, with more than 95% of passengers that would typically fly staying home. Typically at this time of year, more than 2 million people take to the skies at American airports. According to the TSA which logs passenger volume, on March 1, 2,280,522 people flew, slightly down from the 2,301,439 that flew on the same day in 2019. On April 12 of last year, 2,446,801 people flew; this year, a shockingly low 90,510 people flew, representing only 3.7% of the usual crowds.
We asked Maureen O’Leary, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for NOAA’s National Weather Service if the drop in people flying and the resulting drop of flights is impacting data used by the forecast models.
“It’s too soon to quantify the exact impact because the decrease is only occurring for certain flights and routes, and while there is a reduction of commercial passenger flights, we still receive valuable aircraft data from overnight cargo and package carriers,” O’Leary told us. “Even though a decrease in this critical data will likely negatively impact forecast model skill, it does not necessarily translate into a reduction in forecast accuracy since National Weather Service meteorologists use an entire suite of observations and guidance to produce an actual forecast.”
While the number of flights has dropped, the number of weather balloon launches hasn’t. These balloons also provide valuable data used by forecasters.
According to O’Leary, the U.S. aviation industry collects a large amount of weather data from instruments aboard commercial aircrafts; more than 3,500 commercial aircraft provide over 250 million observations per year. “Throughout the flight path, from vertical profiles during ascent and descent to cruise-level, these aircraft provide pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, and in some cases humidity. These data supplement observations from weather balloon launches at almost 900 locations worldwide,” O’Leary said.
NOAA collects billions of Earth observations from weather balloons, surface weather observation networks, RADAR, satellites, and buoys. NOAA will also soon be using COSMIC-2 GPS radio occultation satellite data to further increase observations throughout the depth of the tropical atmosphere.