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Local 5 - weareiowa.com | Des Moines Local News & Weather | Des Moines, Iowa

Will fewer airplane flights mean worse weather forecasts?

As air traffic decreases because of COVID-19 quarantines, data from airline weather reports drops off, too.
Credit: WOI
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PORTLAND, Ore —  A recent article was published with details about yet another impact of the coronavirus. As the piece explains, it should be fairly minor, but it's another example of how the COVID-19 tentacles reach almost everywhere, even into the depths of super computers that produce weather maps, or as we call it in meteorology, numerical weather prediction.

Weather forecasts are produced using the equations of motion. Those are basically mathematical descriptions of the physical processes that govern weather and the atmosphere. 

The foundation of any numerical forecast are good observations. If the equations don't have an accurate starting point, those inaccuracies propagate forward in time as a bad forecast.

As the article notes, the planes flying around the U.S. on  daily basis generate lots of data points - more than 700,000 "daily weather observations" and those help inform the systems that meteorologists use.

About a third of U.S. flights have been grounded since the pandemic broke out, according to Bloomberg News, and about 17 percent of all flights worldwide.

Luckily, these days we have lots of other sources of observations. The new fleet of weather satellites is providing better and more frequent data to help the weather models. On a local level, radar data is even used by some models. 

But it's good that forecasters are aware of what is, or isn't, going into the models we use every day for weather forecasting. It will help us keep a sharper eye on what we're looking at. Experience in recognizing weather patterns and how they play out will be even more valuable under these circumstances.

It'll be interesting to see if forecasts that are not touched by humans and rely solely on computer model output, like those on many weather apps, see a downgrade in accuracy. 

In the meantime, enjoy the weather, no matter the forecast.

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