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How is COVID-19 affecting the accuracy of weather forecasts?

Answer: By causing fewer commercial flights.

Clouds seen through and airplane window.
Shutterstock/06photo
If you feel as though the weather forecasts of late have not been quite up to the standard of accuracy that you’ve become accustomed to, you’re not alone, and it turns out that COVID-19 may be the culprit.

According to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), commercial aircrafts play a notable role in supplying important data for weather forecasting. But, since COVID-19 has caused many, many people to avoid taking flights, there have been noticeably fewer planes in the air. And fewer planes means less weather data being gathered and reported to forecasters.

The ECMWF estimates that removing all commercial aircraft from the skies would result in a 15 percent degradation in wind and temperature forecast accuracies. That’s a significant reduction in an accuracy that was not guaranteed to begin with. Even though the reductions we’re currently seeing aren’t quite that large, since there are still some planes in the air, they are still enough to have a noticeable impact.

“Removing half the aircraft reports would be expected to give slightly less than half the impact of removing all aircraft,” said ECMWF scientist Bruce Ingleby.

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