Pandemic Causes Gap In Data Collection That Could Impact Weather Forecasts

Photo: Ocean Observatories Initiative

In yet another painful ripple effect of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Scientific American, scientists are being forced to pause critical data collection and research that could diminish the quality of weather forecasts in the near term, and threaten long-standing climate studies. The pandemic’s grounding of aircraft and ships and other methods of regularly collecting data that has been ongoing for decades will result in big gaps in data that will cause the models used for weather and climate to be less accurate.

Why This Matters:  There’s that word again — unprecedented.  The loss of water and air data that is critical for use in weather forecasting models is unprecedented.  Coronavirus is going to impact society in negative ways for a long time to come.  The more long term and consistent the data collected is, the better the model — the more holes in the data, the more unreliable.  Some of these data have been collected consistently for more than 40 years.  And there is no way to fill the gaps because the data is time-sensitive and can’t be backfilled — once there is a data gap, it is there forever.

How Could This Happen?

Scientific American explains that scientists study ecological processes “over decades—from the impact of dwindling snowfalls on the mountains of Colorado to the effects of pollution in a Baltimore stream.”  Much of the data comes from private sources — ships and airplanes.  The ships may still be operating, but usually, a scientist would go along to take in the ocean data and record it properly.  In the past, occasionally a specific cruise would be halted due to extenuating circumstances, according to Justine Parks, a marine technician who manages one such program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.  But Parker cannot think of another time when the entire program has been shut down.  Similarly, other cruises are stuck in port — such as one that services more than 100 delicate ocean sensors that are part of a $44-million-per-year public-private scientific network called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. These maintenance and repair trips are now unable to run until July.   In the air, the loss of data collected from commercial airline flights is also concerning to scientists.  These flights provide invaluable weather data — they measure temperature, pressure and wind speeds during flight, but now the number of flights and thus the data collected is roughly half what it used to be, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


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