How COVID-19 Could Ruin Weather Forecasts and Climate Records

How COVID-19 Could Ruin Weather Forecasts and Climate Records

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Twice a year, Ed Dever's group, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, heads out to sea off the coasts of Oregon and Washington to restore and clean more than 100 delicate sensors that make up a segment of a US scientific network. $ 44 million per year to make climate records, called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. "If this had been a normal year, now it would have been at sea," says the scientist.

Instead, Dever is one of many scientists marginalized by the coronavirus pandemic, watching from afar as precious field data disappears and instruments degrade. The scientific pause could jeopardize short-term weather forecasts and threaten long-standing climate studies. In some cases, researchers expect gaps in data that has been regularly collected for decades. "The break in the scientific record is probably unprecedented," says Frank Davis, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Davis is the executive director of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, a network of 30 ecological sites stretching from the extreme north of Alaska to Antarctica. The LTER network, consisting of both urban and rural locations, allows scientists to study ecological processes for decades, from the impact of decreased snowfall in the Colorado mountains to the effects of pollution in a Baltimore stream. In some places, this could be the first outage in more than 40 years, he says. "That is painful for the scientists involved."


Other monitoring programs face similar gaps. Scientists often travel on commercial container ships that cross the world's oceans, collecting data and deploying a variety of instruments that take records of weather, as well as currents and other properties of the ocean. Most of those ships are still in operation, but travel restrictions mean scientists are no longer allowed on board, says Justine Parks, a marine technician who runs one of those programs at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

Port strikes and political instability have stopped specific cruise ships in the past, Parks says. But, to her knowledge, this is the first time the entire program has been shut down for an extended period of time.

Measurements made at sea are important for forecasting the climate over the oceans, as well as keeping long-term climate records of ocean health and climate change, says Emma Heslop, Program Specialist in Ocean Observations at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission at Paris. His group is still trying to assess the extent of the damage the pandemic is causing to the wider ocean observing community, but researchers are already feeling some effects. In the last 2 months, they have seen a steady decrease in the number of observations on board, representing, since the beginning of February, a loss of 15% of the stations that report data. And while the community is working hard to discover other ways to collect important data, the situation is likely to get worse as the pandemic drags on. "The longer the restrictions are in place," she says, "the longer it will take for our operations to recover."

Commercial flights also provide invaluable weather data, measuring temperature, pressure, and wind speed as you sail. Weather data provided by the US aircraft fleet had dropped to half its normal levels as of March 31, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Satellites and weather balloons can fill in some gaps, but certain aircraft data is irreplaceable. "It is true that with the virtual loss of global aviation, there is a gap in some of the climate records," says Grahame Madge, spokesperson for the UK Met Office in Exeter.

The Met Office estimates that the loss of observations from aircraft will increase its forecast error by 1–2%, but notes that, in areas where flights are typically heavier, the accuracy of the scientists' forecast could suffer even more. The Met Office maintains more than 250 UK weather stations which provide continuous or daily information from autonomously collected atmospheric and meteorological data. For now, those systems work fine, but if an instrument fails, Madge says, it will be difficult to get staff to fix the problem.

Much of the world's atmospheric monitoring data is collected with little or no human intervention, and such projects should be able to continue to function. The Advanced Global Atmospheric Gas Experiment, for example, measures ozone-depleting compounds, greenhouse gases, and other trace components in the atmosphere at 13 remote sites around the world. Many of its systems are autonomous: each station has one or two people who perform routine maintenance tasks to keep the instruments running. Ray Weiss, an atmospheric chemist at Scripps leading the project, says that two instruments have failed so far, but losing a single instrument or even an entire site for a few weeks is unlikely to compromise monitoring capabilities. of the network. Arlyn Andrews, who heads NOAA's greenhouse gas monitoring program, says the impacts on that network have been "relatively minor," and so far less than 5% of NOAA sites have lost data.

Unless the situation gets badly worse, Weiss anticipates that the show will escape relatively unscathed. "We are limping, it is the end result."

Video: How the coronavirus pandemic could affect weather forecasting (June 2022).


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