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How the COVID-19 plunge in air travel worsened forecast accuracy

Friday, July 24th 2020, 4:32 pm - The drastic decline in air travel robbed forecasters of regular weather observations from aircraft, with the U.S. and southeastern China among the most impacted.

While the world struggled to get the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic under control earlier this year, most countries halted air travel for fear densely packed airplanes would ease the coronavirus' spread.

A secondary benefit of air travel is collecting weather observation data that finds its way into forecast models. With the widespread groundings, meteorologists feared fewer flights would mean fewer observations, and less accurate forecasts. Now, a new study from scientists at Lancaster University in the U.K. has borne out those fears.

The study found the pandemic nixed 50-75 per cent of aircraft meteorological observations between March and May, depending on the area, with a resulting decline in accuracy in most parts of the world. The decline was worst in most -- but not all -- places with busy air corridors, such as the United States, southeastern China, and Australia. More remote areas such as Siberia and the Sahara Desert also took a hit.

Though it can be a nuisance for people if the seven-day for their area is off a bit, the authors say the effects of a faulty forecast can be more serious.

"This could handicap early warning of extreme weather and cause additional economic damage on the top of that from the pandemic," the paper says.

Airplane PExels New research from Lancaster University found a noticeable decline in forecast accuracy from March to May this year, reflecting the grounding of numerous flights over COVID-19 fears.

Inaccurate forecasts also make it harder on farmers and the energy sector. As an example, lead author Dr. Ying Chen cites wind turbines, which rely on wind speeds and temperature readings to determine energy loads if, say, it's a hot day and more people fire up the AC.

“If this uncertainty goes over a threshold, it will introduce unstable voltage for the electrical grid,” Chen said in a release from the university. “That could lead to a blackout, and I think this is the last thing we want to see in this pandemic.”

The report did find that Western Europe managed to escape the decline in forecast accuracy, despite flights in that region dropping by 80-90 per cent. Chen says that was likely due to the continent's ability to fall back on "densely-packed" ground weather stations, along with balloon measurements.

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

The study was published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union.

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