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COVID-19 impact on weather observation concerns UN body

World Meteorological Organization says it gets much of its weather data from commercial aircraft

Peter Kenny   | 01.04.2020
COVID-19 impact on weather observation concerns UN body


The UN weather body on Wednesday expressed concern over the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on weather observations, noting that much of its data comes from commercial airlines whose flights have dramatically declined in much of the world.

“At this time, the adverse impact of the loss of observations on the quality of weather forecast products is still expected to be relatively modest,” said Lars Peter Riishojgaard, a director in the Earth System Branch of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“However, as the decrease in the availability of aircraft weather observations continue and expands, we may expect a gradual decrease in reliability of the forecasts,” he said at a virtual news briefing, explaining that the impact would depend on the length of the shutdown.

Commercial airliners contribute to the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay program (AMDAR).

AMDAR uses onboard sensors, computers, and communications systems to collect, process, format, and transmit meteorological observations to ground stations via satellite or radio links.

Riishojgaard said that in parts of the world, especially over Europe, the decrease in measurements over the last couple of weeks have been dramatic and that southern hemisphere weather data is much gleaned from commercial aircraft.

Countries affiliated with EUMETNET, a collaboration between the 31 national weather services in Europe, are currently discussing ways to boost the short-term capabilities of other parts of their observing networks in order to mitigate this loss of aircraft observations.

Riishojgaard noted that the world has become “economically dependent” on a high degree of reliability on weather forecasts.

The WMO also noted a balancing act in finding more sustainable ways of carrying on commercial activity that will not impact the climate system.

Riishojgaard said that the immediate halt to traffic movement could be seen in aerial photographs from megacities like the Indian capital Delhi showing a place with clears skies that was recently covered in a blanket of smog.

WMO said its Global Observing System serves as the backbone for all weather and climate services and products provided by the 193 member states and territories to their citizens.

“National Meteorological and Hydrological Services continue to perform their essential 24/7 functions despite the severe challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement.

But he cautioned as well that the impacts of climate change and growing amount of weather-related disasters continue.

“The COVID-19 pandemic poses an additional challenge and may exacerbate multi-hazard risks at a single country level. Therefore governments must pay attention to their national early warning and weather observing capacities despite the COVID-19 crisis,” Taalas added.

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