No One Knows What The Weather Forecast Actually Is
Probably the least well-known function of regular air traffic is that it collects weather data for the forecasts you see on your phone every day. See, to gather data the pilot constantly needs, the instruments of an aircraft in flight are always measuring things like air pressure, temperature, wind direction and speed. In the U.S. and Europe, meteorologists' computer models collect that data and take it into account for their forecasts. The world-leading European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF [We swear that's a real organization.]) says it's the second most crucial input after satellite data, so losing it is a pretty big deal.
HAL9001/UnsplashYet another inconvenient truth.
The thing with airplane data is that it fills in areas that other sources don't cover and, right now, we ... basically have almost no idea what's going on there. Airplane data is down 75-80% worldwide, but there's big regional variation. For example, it's only down 25% in the U.S. (mainly because the U.S. kept a lot of cargo planes flying, unlike Europe), but more than 90% in the Southern Hemisphere. Still, there's a big loss everywhere -- the only difference is whether it's simply big or near-total. So how is that affecting our ability to forecast the weather?
Scientists can't agree on exactly how much it's doing, but it seems to be doing something. The ECMWF says there might be a "noticeable" drop in forecast accuracy, although the NOAA says they haven't seen a clear drop (but that may be because U.S. air traffic hasn't fallen as much as European traffic). Still, the NOAA, ECMWF, and other agencies are busy trying to fill in the gaps -- they're ordering more weather balloon launches than usual and gathering data from an airborne observing network maintained by a private company. So, basically, you should take weather forecasts with a super big pinch of salt these days ... you know, if you actually manage to go outside right now.
Top image: Wesley Gibbs/Unsplash, Derek Malou/Unsplash