Less commercial air travel could end up impacting weather forecasting models

ATLANTA — Because of the pandemic we are traveling less, especially on planes. Those commercial airplanes are also a critical weather tool that measures temperature, winds and water vapor—much like a weather balloon. That information is a big part of predicting our weather.

Atlanta-based UPS has been collecting weather data on their cargo planes for more than 30 years.

“In the late 90s, we started introducing water vapor sensors. It was a prototype system. It expanded from six aircraft to do now, 25 aircraft,” explained UPS veteran meteorologist Randy Baker. He explained to Severe Weather Team 2 Meteorologist Brad Nitz they send that flight information to the National Weather Service to be added to forecast models.

“The main impact, or an advantage to us, is the fact that that information gets into the models to provide better weather forecasts for us.”

While UPS may be doing a little more flying these days, observations from commercial passenger flights are way down because of the pandemic.

“There are hundreds of thousands of observations coming in on any given day from these flights in a normal situation. In a COVID situation, we’ve seen reductions of 50 to 70% in some cases,” said Dr. Marshall Shepherd, director of UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences program.

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Shepherd said flight data, combined with weather balloons and satellite data, are an important part of forecasting, especially in remote areas weather balloons aren’t launched.

“If you’re baking a cake, and you have this sort of robust set of ingredients but you’re missing something, the cake’s not going to be quite right. And that’s really what we talked about when we talk about the amount of data going into these models and the ultimate forecast,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Channel 2 Action News in an email that despite the drop in commercial flights, they’ve not seen a noticeable reduction in model accuracy.

But researchers from Lancaster University published a study showing they found a decline in accuracy that they said could handicap early warning of extreme weather and impact our economy, including inaccurate forecast in remote areas like the Sahara Desert.

But does this mean we can’t predict weather?

“We’re not going back to the Stone Age when it comes to weather forecasting with this data being missing, because we can offset it with other things, satellite and other observations from the ground,” Shepherd said.

Meteorologists, including Nitz, said there is still plenty of data available to make reliable forecasts. These models are just one of the tools they use.

“The satellites have gotten a lot better the last few years,” Baker said. “So I would expect that that has counterbalanced this, to some degree. But sure, there would be some.”