Move over weather balloons. Jet airliners are taking over to provide us with better forecasts
Friday, June 20, 2014, 12:21 - Weather forecasting is about to take a leap into the 21st century. The US National Weather Service, United Postal Services (UPS), and Southwest Airlines are teaming up to turn a fleet of jetliners into a new weather monitoring system that promises to advance weather forecasting to the next level.
The weather forecasts that show up on our TVs, computers and smart devices are based on the knowledge and experience of meteorologists who have learned some of the most advanced concepts in science, but an indispensable tool for weather forecasting has been the computer models produced by by agencies like the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration and Environment Canada. Hundreds of weather stations on the ground, reporting conditions every hour on the hour, provide detailed information that gets fed into these models. However, when it comes to knowing what's going on in the atmosphere above the surface - from about 10 metres to around 10-15 kilometres up - they rely on data radioed back from weather balloons (radiosondes or rawinsondes). Compared to the number and frequency of reports from ground stations, these are launched from just 102 sites across the United States, in the Caribbean and parts of the Pacific Ocean, only twice daily, and the data is dependent on where the wind carries these balloons, affecting the resolution and possibly missing some of what's going on. Also, the majority (sometimes over 80 per cent) of raiwinsondes are lost when they drop back down to Earth. They aren't prohibitively expensive, but when you launch 75,000 in a year (according to NOAA), and only get less than 20 per cent back, it's still a significant loss.
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Weather models do a fairly good job of tracking future weather conditions - when guided by human minds and hands, of course - even with the limited amount of data they get from these weather balloon launches. However, the biggest limitation to the performance of the models is exactly how much data we can provide them. Satellite data does fill in some gaps for data above the ground, but they can only do so much and the data they return is limited by the fact that they fly so high above the Earth (thus their resolution is low compared to ground-based data).
That's where this new deal comes in. Many airliners already have sensors that read temperature and wind, and sometimes that's enough. However, it doesn't give the whole picture. New sensors that read humidity levels in the air as the plane flies will provide a more complete picture, though. According to Bloomberg, UPS already has 25 of their flights equipped with sensors that return temperature, wind and humidity data, and Southwest Airlines already had 87 jetliners able to do the same. Apparently, this has gone up to a total of 225 planes, thanks to Panasonic Corp., and this is providing tens of thousands of weather reports every day as these planes fly back and forth on their regular routes.
With upper-air weather data that matches the frequency and resolution of the ground-level data (or at least comes a lot closer to matching it), this will mean even more data for forecast models to ingest, and that's what's needed for these models to generate ever more accurate forecasts.