Weather forecasts may become less accurate due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to scientists.
That’s because forecasters rely on delicate instruments strapped onto commercial aircraft – scores of which have been grounded by the global outbreak.
The stark warning was issued last week by US meteorologist Ryan Finn.
In a blog post on Spectrum News, he explained how planes are vital to the creation of long-range weather predictions.
“Along with radiosondes attached to weather balloons, [atmospheric] data is collected from buoys, satellites and aircraft,” Finn said. “This includes commercial aircraft.”
“Outside of satellite data, aircraft data is the most important source of data in terms of increasing forecast accuracy.”
Data from these readings are sent to weather agencies such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Before the coronavirus outbreak, which has forced a third of the world’s population into lockdown and canceled most commercial flights, more than 1million weather data reports were being sent to these agencies on a daily basis.
According to Stanley Benjamin of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, that number has now dropped by more than 50 percent.
It’s likely that this will have a significant effect on our weather forecasts, Finn said.
Last year, a study from the European Center For Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) showed that cutting all aircraft weather data could degrade the accuracy of short-range wind and temperature forecasts by 15 percent.
“I’m not trying to make an excuse for any future forecast busts, but less air traffic equals less data to incorporate into weather models meteorologists look at,” Finn wrote.
“This could, in turn, make for a decline in forecast accuracy in the coming weeks and/or months.”
According to the NOAA scientist Stanley, a similar effect occurred in 2010.
That spring, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, spewing huge plumed of ash and smoke into the atmosphere.
Air travel was sent into chaos, contributing to an estimated £4 billion ($4.9 billion) cost to the European economy.
Stanley said that disruptions to weather forecasts that year could be repeated during the coronavirus outbreak, New Scientist reports.
There is a chance, of course, that the disruption won’t be noticed by weather scientists.