Covid impact: Weather forecasts hit turbulence on grounded jets

New Delhi: Global weather forecasting systems have hit an air pocket as they depend on crucial data on wind, humidity and temperature relayed by aircraft sensors, which have almost vanished as an overwhelming majority of flights have been grounded.

Indian scientists say they are managing without aircraft data, but the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says it is concerned about the quality of forecasts as meteorological information from aeroplanes has fallen up to 90%. Further, lockdowns have hit even surface data collection in developing countries where ground stations are not automated.

Global forecasters are using data from automated stations and satellites, but even this would face challenges if the pandemic lingers and prevents repair and maintenance. “National Meteorological and Hydrological Services continue to perform their essential 24/7 functions but are facing increasingly severe challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, especially in developing countries,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

So far, Indian forecasting has not suffered, ministry of earth sciences secretary M Rajeevan said. “The long-range forecasts, which include predictions about the monsoon, will not be affected. For short-range forecasts, we have not yet encountered any issues,” Rajeevan told ET.

The WMO, an agency of the UN, said meteorological measurements taken by aircraft have plummeted 75-80%. In the southern hemisphere, it is worse, with nearly 90% of data now missing.


Aircraft Transmit 800k Observations A Day

Aircraft sensors transmit over 800,000 observations a day used for public weather forecasting, climate monitoring and prediction, early warning systems for weather hazards and predictions to support the aviation industry itself.

Thousands of aircraft from 43 airlines contribute observations under the WMO Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) programme that uses onboard sensors, computers and communications systems to automatically collect, process, format and transmit meteorological observations to ground stations via satellite or radio links. Rajeevan said the India Meteorological Department (IMD) had shifted its focus to early warning services to help alert people about extreme weather conditions that can pose danger to life and property.

The WMO has a similar advice for forecasters. “It is essential that governments pay attention to their national early warning and weather observing capacities,” said Taalas.

The IMD has already made its most important forecast for the year — about the monsoon, which it said would be normal. Of the 200-odd weather observatories in the country, the IMD is keeping only 20 stations functional. A lot of the observatories, such as the ones monitoring the oceans and air, are automated and thus functioning normally.

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