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How COVID-19 Interferes With Weather Forecasts and Climate Research

‘The break in the scientific record is probably unprecedented,’ one ecologist says

As scientists stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, crucial weather and climate data aren't being collected. (Photo by Mathias Krumbholz via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)
smithsonianmag.com

In early April, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization raised concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on weather forecasting and climate change research. Commercial flights take measurements as they soar through the skies, and scientists normally hitched rides on container ships so they could track conditions over the oceans.

With flights grounded and scientists kept off of the ships, weather forecasts are being made with less data than usual. Climate research is taking a hit as well, as researchers must stay home instead of conduct planned fieldwork, as University of California, Santa Barbara ecologist Frank Davis tells Giuliana Viglione of Nature News.

“The break in the scientific record is probably unprecedented,” Davis tells Nature News.

According to the WMO, air traffic readings collected in Europe are down by 85 to 90 percent, while those from the United States are down by 60 percent. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials tell NPR’s Lauren Sommer that cargo and passenger carrier planes are still sending data, and other sources including “weather balloons, surface weather observation network, radar, satellites, and buoys” also supply data to weather models.

But, per Nature News, the United Kingdom Meteorological Office estimates that lost aircraft observations will increase error by up to two percent or more in areas that normally see high air traffic. If all air traffic were lost, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts found that weather model accuracy fell by 15 percent.

“At the present time, the adverse impact of the loss of observations on the quality of weather forecast products is still expected to be relatively modest,” Lars Peter Riishojgaard, Director of WMO’s Earth System Branch, says in a statement. “However, as the decrease in availability of aircraft weather observations continues and expands, we may expect a gradual decrease in reliability of the forecasts.”

The impact on weather prediction stretches beyond aircraft data measurements. As the WMO points out, weather data is collected manually in developing nations, and it has seen a significant decrease in the reported data that is usually collected every few hours. Early, accurate observations are key to warn residents of extreme weather disasters like floods and hurricanes—and several reports have predicted an active hurricane season in 2020, per Science News’ Carolyn Gramling.

Some automated equipment, including more than 100 sensors off the coast of Oregon and Washington, requires upkeep that isn’t being performed.

Part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which gathers data on physical and chemical changes in the ocean from seafloor to sea level, the equipment needs to be cleaned twice per year—but this year’s spring cleaning was cancelled, as Nature News reports, interrupting climate change research. University of Rhode Island microbiologist Bethany Jenkins also saw a research project, on a bloom of northern Atlantic phytoplankton, cancelled after over a decade of planning.

“If field programs that measure climate-relevant variables are being canceled or put on hold, this is a step backwards for our contributions to understanding a rapidly changing ocean,” Jenkins tells Claudia Geib at Undark. It could take more than two years for Jenkins’ team to book the research trip again.

So far, observations of Earth’s surface haven’t been severely impacted, Princeton University climate scientist Gabriel Vecchi tells Oliver Milman at the Guardian, though he was concerned about the possible impact on data collection.

“We should all be grateful for the people and organizations that are continuing these essential forecast and monitoring operations, in spite of the severe challenges they are facing,” he says.

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