Weather forecasting disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic

All jokes about being wrong for a living aside, meteorologists have also had to adapt since the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year.

Few planes have been flying due to the pandemic, and what many people may not realize is how much air traffic plays an important role in weather forecasting.

Read more: Air travel and COVID-19: Will the industry rebound from its biggest setback?

Around nine per cent of all data that is collected globally for forecasting comes from aircraft that are equipped with weather monitoring instruments.

“From March to July typically we would, across Canadian airspace, see 11,000 flights a day on average,” NAV CANADA media relations manager Brian Boudreau said to Global News.

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“In 2020, we saw 4,000.”

That is a 70 to 75 per cent drop in air traffic. He added other parts of the world are around an 80 per cent reduction.

Last month, the trade association for the airline industry said air travel is recovering more slowly than expected and it will take until 2024 to return to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels.

Read more: Air travel not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024

Since long-range forecasting for any spot on Earth requires taking into account what is and will be happening everywhere else on our planet, this is a global issue for forecasters.

In the absence of the data collected from planes, other devices — like weather balloons — have been helping to fill the void. In the Edmonton region, that happens west of the city at the Carvel weather station near Stony Plain.

ECCC Weather balloon launch at the Carvel weather station west of Edmonton, Alta.
ECCC Weather balloon launch at the Carvel weather station west of Edmonton, Alta. Phil Darlington, Global News

“Usually it is twice per day at about thirty stations in Canada, but we can increase that to make up for the loss,” said Normand Gagnon, Environment and Climate Change Canada‘s chief of numerical weather prediction section.

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He also said not all planes provide data, and while some planes are still flying, the frequency of data reported is where the loss is being seen.

READ MORE: Edmonton airport traffic not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024

What’s more, as some regions see air travel increase — the loss of data is slowly being lessened. To put things into perspective, Gagnon said at just his centre alone in Montreal, they receive around 14 million points of weather data per day. He added around 80 per cent of forecasting information comes from satellites.

Even though more flights are now filling the skies above Canada and around the world, there is still a void left by the reduction — and it may take years to get back to the full amount.

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For weather on the go, download the Global News SkyTracker weather app for iPhone, iPad or Android.

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