COVID-19 Pandemic Affects Weather Predictions
Tue, April 20, 2021

COVID-19 Pandemic Affects Weather Predictions



Coronavirus cases across the world continue to increase every day. Recent statistics from showed that the US, Italy, and Spain overtook China with the most number of cases. As of this writing, the US has 163,479 cases, Italy has 101,739, Spain has 87,956, while China has 81,470. Overall, COVID-19 cases worldwide have reached 784,381 with a total death toll of 37,780. 

Many countries are now increasing and adopting different measures to contain the virus and protect their people, including shutting down airports, implementing full lockdowns, imposing travel restrictions, and completely sealing their borders. These measures are strictly implemented to make sure that the virus will not infect people at an exponential rate. Reports from the World Health Organization stated that each person infected by the virus can pass it on to two to three others - who then spread it to the next two to three people, and so on, such that a single case quickly leads to thousands.

Health experts also stated that countries and cities should operate on the assumption that there may be a substantial amount of transmission although they still have low numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases. For instance, more than half of people who have been tested in Arizona in the US have been found to have the coronavirus. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, stated that it’s a troubling sign. "One thing we know is that if more than 10 to 15% of your tests are positive, you are probably not testing enough. You want to be testing a lot of people because that's how you capture all the positive cases,” Jha said. 

Many corporations and industries were also forced to shut down as people were ordered to stay at home due to the pandemic. One of the most affected is the aviation industry. Many people had no choice but to cancel their flights as countries enforce strict travel bans and encourage social distancing. This means there’s no air travel unless absolutely necessary.



Coronavirus Impacts in the Aviation Industry

A recent report by the Airports Council International World (ACI) revealed the impacts of COVID-19 outbreak on passenger traffic, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. The findings showed that global passenger traffic in January 2020 grew by only 1.9% - down from 4.9% a month prior. The decrease in passenger traffic was particularly felt by the Asia-Pacific region, declining by 1.8% due to a significant shift in domestic traffic with 3.6%. 

According to International Airport Review, an online site that provides news and business information for the world's airport industry: magazines, newsletter, directory, and on-line services, ACI, unfortunately, added that the recent measures to the pandemic will cause an even greater decline. “These figures show that the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on aviation was rapid, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The aviation industry is facing unprecedented upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation calls for an exceptional policy response to ensure the continuity and sustainability of airport operations,” ACI World Director General Angela Gittens said.

Another report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that around 8,500 passenger aircraft have been grounded, which accounts for one-third of the total passenger fleet around the world. The report, which estimated the impacts of a three-month-long ‘lockdown’ of the global air travel market, revealed that passenger revenues are expected to decrease by $252 billion while the revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs) will decrease by 38%.

According to Airport-Technology, an online site that delivers airport news and in-depth analysis of the biggest stories in airport logistics, airline news, passenger trends and global air travel patterns, these figures show the ‘immediate and critical liquidity challenge’ that will be faced by airlines in the future. “Notwithstanding some recent signs of some upturn in the China domestic market, for the industry as a whole, we expect the recovery process will be slower than the six to seven-month timeframe observed in past epidemics. The extension of recovery time reflects both the staggered timing of the start of the virus outbreak in different regions and the expected global recession, which will continue to impact passenger demand even after the border restrictions are lifted,” IATA said. 



Impacts on Weather Forecasting

Experts heavily rely on air flights for weather forecasting. According to Insurance Journal, an online site that delivers the latest business news, airplanes have been gathering weather data since WWI. In 1919, the US Weather Bureau first paid pilots to carry instruments attached to wing struts to a height of 13,500 feet (4,100 meters). By 1998, the modern data-collection network took shape, led by the World Meteorological Organization. The organization created the Aircraft Meteorology Data Relay Panel, which led to a fully automated system for gathering weather data from commercial, private and military aircraft. 

The heaviest concentration of daily aircraft weather reporting comes from the US, Western Europe, and Japan. Every day, planes can transmit up to 230,000 weather observations, which collect data on air pressure, temperature, cloud height, and more. This data plays an integral role in weather forecasts because it can reduce errors in meteorologists’ six-hour weather predictions by 15% to 30%. However, due to the pandemic, there has been a reduction in aircraft flights across the world. Aircraft-based observations available to weather prediction centers have also decreased. 

A recent report by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) revealed that they received 65% fewer reports from planes flying over Europe and 42% fewer reports from planes around the world. “Sensitivity studies at ECMWF have shown that removing all aircraft data degrades the short-range wind and temperature forecasts at those levels by up to 15%, with significant degradations at all forecast ranges up to seven days,” the report said. 

According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, the pandemic has dramatically changed air travel volume. However, Susan Buchanan, the National Weather Service’s director of public affairs, stated that this won’t necessarily make meteorologists’ predictions less accurate. They still receive valuable aircraft data from overnight cargo and package carriers. 

“While the automated weather reports from commercial aircraft provide exceptionally valuable data for forecast models, we also collect billions of Earth observations from other sources that feed into our models, such as weather balloons, surface weather observation network, radar, satellites, and buoys,” Buchanan said.