• Why Has COVID-19 Affected Weather Forecasts?

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Why Has COVID-19 Affected Weather Forecasts?

Sep 03 2020

Weather forecasts have become less accurate since the outbreak of coronavirus, according to new research from the Lancaster Environment Centre in the UK. The study, which was published in the online journal Geophysical Research Letters, concluded that the massive reduction in flights taking place across the world meant that aircraft were gathering significantly less weather data, thus contributing to the poorer quality forecasts.

As well as upsetting the plans of countless individuals the world over, the inaccurate forecasts can also have more tangible impacts for the energy industry and the economy. Power companies rely on predicted weather patterns to estimate when demand for central heating (or air conditioning) will peak, thus allowing them to accommodate spikes. As a result, the missing data could have serious repercussions going forwards.

Up in the air

With many countries all over the planet in varying forms of lockdown, international travel has all but come to a standstill over the last six months. This has, of course, spelled terrible news for the airfreight industry and passenger airlines, but has led to a less obvious consequence: poorer weather forecasts. Aeroplanes are equipped with advanced monitoring hardware capable of recording data concerning temperature, pressure, wind and humidity.

With far fewer flights taking place, the data available to meteorological stations from aircraft has dropped by as much as 75%. This has most heavily impacted places like the USA, Australia and China, where busy air traffic is a common occurrence. Europe has represented something of an anomaly in that its forecasts have been largely unaffected, despite flight paths seeing up to 90% less traffic, but those behind the paper have attributed that to the continent’s abundant network of over 1,500 meteorological monitoring points and its use of weather balloons to compensate for the lack of aircraft.

The real cost of poor forecasts

In addition to environmental implications of coronavirus upsetting weather forecasts, the loss of aircraft data also holds fiscal consequences, too. The agricultural sector is reliant on accurate forecasts to plan out how to best cultivate crops and maximise yields, so unexpected weather events can lead to food shortages. Meanwhile, the electrical grid is managed according to expected peaks and troughs in consumer demand, which are predicted thanks to the efforts of meteorologists aided in large part by aircraft weather data.

Perhaps even more concerning than the immediate fiscal ramifications of a mismanaged power grid are what may happen if energy infrastructures suffer a failure during a time when they are needed most, due to the extreme circumstances incurred by COVID-19. “If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid,” explained Ying Chen, lead author on the study. “That could lead to a blackout, and I think this is the last thing we want to see in this pandemic.”

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