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Study shows fewer flights are affecting weather forecasting

COVID-19 has changed everything that we do, including how we forecast your weather!

CLEVELAND — As the coronavirus pandemic grew across the world, many people decided to cancel their vacations. As a result, many airlines were forced to slash their flight schedules.

Now we're finding out that these decisions have led to an indirect impact on weather forecasting in China and the United States. 

According to a new study led by Dr. Ying Chen, a senior research associate at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, when flights in the U.S. were cut by 75% from March to May, it impacted the amount of weather data collected by airplanes. 

It's the same data meteorologists use to give you tomorrow's forecast or a heads up on the next big storm. 

"If we don’t have enough observations, we have larger uncertainty for current conditions," says Dr. Chen.

Each day when planes take off, they're mini-science experiments happening that you may not realize. Most commercial airplanes are equipped with weather instruments that take readings on wind direction, speed, air pressure, temperature, and in some cases, humidity. 

These readings are very important because what happens at 10,000 or 20,000 feet in the air, impacts the weather you see on the ground. However, if those readings aren't taken as often, then accurate forecasting becomes a lot more challenging. 

"One day forecasts are still reliable," reports Dr. Chen. "Three days or more are so-so because the longer forecasts have larger uncertainty."

Now, that doesn't mean that your forecast you see each night is wrong. Meteorologists still use other things like satellites and historical data to predict what Mother Nature will do tomorrow. 

Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Chen says the accuracy of weather forecasts was getting better. In February, he found that because of all of the data we were getting, temperature forecasts improved by several degrees. 

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