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Fallout from COVID-19 pandemic making weather forecasts less accurate

Fallout from COVID-19 pandemic making weather forecasts less accurate
With fewer planes in the skies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research suggests weather forecast models have gotten less accurate. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

July 17 (UPI) -- The weather forecaster is the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a decrease in the amount of information used to predict weather could affect forecasts during hurricane and monsoon season.

According to new research, weather forecasts have gotten less accurate over the course of the pandemic, as a result of the decrease in commercial airline flights.

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During their time in the skies, commercial airplanes regularly log a variety of meteorological data, including air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and wind direction -- data that is used to populate weather prediction models.

According to a new study, published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the amount of weather observation data recorded by commercial airplanes has declined by 50 to 75 percent between March and May.

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With less spring meteorological data to work with, forecasting models have produced less accurate predictions, researchers said. Long-term term forecasts suffered the most from a lack of meteorological data, according to the latest analysis.

Though most people simply rely on the weather forecast to dress properly and plan the family trip to the beach, accurate weather forecasts are also essential to a variety of industries, including agriculture and the energy sector.

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Power companies rely on accurate weather forecasts to manage the electrical grid, for example.

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"If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid," Ying Chen, a senior research associate at the Lancaster Environment Center, said in a news release. "That could lead to a blackout, and I think this is the last thing we want to see in this pandemic."

Forecast accuracy suffered the most across the United States, southeast China and Australia, as well as more remote regions like the Sahara Desert, Greenland and Antarctica.

Though Western Europe experienced an 80 to 90 percent drop in flight traffic during the height of the pandemic, weather forecasts in the region remained relatively accurate. Chen suspects the region's densely-packed network of ground-based weather stations helped forecasters continue to populate models with sufficient amounts of meteorological data.

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"It's a good lesson which tells us we should introduce more observation sites, especially in the regions with sparse data observations," Chen said. "This will help us to buffer the impacts of this kind of global emergency in the future."

Though long-term forecasts for surface meteorology have struggled, Chen found precipitation forecasts have remained relatively accurate, as they rely mostly on satellite images.

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With many models continuing to run on less meteorological data, however, Chen suspects precipitation forecasts could become less accurate during hurricane and monsoon season.

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