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COVID-19 may be ruining weather services

COVID-19 is posing challenges for services that collect data for weather forecasts.

How COVID-19 Could Ruin Weather Forecasting

October 6, 2020 - Chelsea Lee

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many lives, with lockdown and social distancing measures, but our weather and climate forecasting systems have not taken a day off. Many of the services that collect weather and climate data have been halted, which creates the risk of inaccurate future forecasts as well as large gaps in long-term data collection.

Scientists often conduct research on commercial cargo ships, allowing them to measure ocean currents and other weather elements at sea. However, the recent travel and social distancing restrictions have meant that scientists are no longer allowed on board. Some organisations also have sensors located far out in the ocean, which may degrade due to delayed check-ups.

On land, weather stations across the UK are still running, but any malfunctions would be difficult  for the UK Met Office to manage as their staff may not be able to travel out to fix the problem. In some countries, a larger number of weather stations rely on manual upkeep, which means more climate and weather data at risk.

The reduction in air traffic is another challenge. Usually, sensors on board thousands of commercial aircrafts send  weather data to the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) programme. The number of weather-related measurements taken from aircrafts has decreased by 75-80% and 90% in the global south. The UK Met Office suggests that these declines will increase weather forecast errors by 1-2%.

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Weather services are also responsible for collecting long-term records of our climate. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commissions have both been recording long-term data on ocean health and climate change. There is an estimated 15% decrease in the number of stations at sea transmitting data.

Despite the significant impact of COVID-19, national weather services globally are rising to the challenge of keeping up normal weather and climate forecasting operations. Supercomputers, instruments and scientific models have been offered to help researchers find out how environmental factors such as humidity and temperature could affect the spread of the virus.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) is worried about the disruption to these important weather and climate services. The exact impact of COVID-19 on the world’s climate and weather services are still fairly uncertain. However, one thing is clear – it is important to have strong weather and climate operating systems to maintain climate records and help local communities- especially those who are vulnerable to weather hazards.