Coronavirus pandemic threatens climate monitoring, WMO warns

Data for weather forecasts and climate monitoring provided by in-flight sensors and manual observations have decreased significantly since the Covid-19 outbreak

A WMO global atmosphere watch station in Samoa. (Photo: World Meteorological Organization/Flickr)

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The coronavirus pandemic risks reducing the amount and quality of weather observations and climate and atmospheric monitoring, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has warned.

The WMO’s Global Observing System provides critical data and observations on the state of the atmosphere, oceans and land surface which inform weather analyses, forecasts and warning signals around the world.

Large parts of the observing system, such as satellite components and ground-based networks, are partly or fully automated and are expected to continue to function for several weeks.

But if restrictions to contain Covid-19 continue for more than a few weeks, the lack of repairs, maintenance and deployments “will become of increasing concern,” the WMO said in a statement.

Manual parts of the observing system have already been significantly affected by the pandemic. Commercial planes, for example, provide in-flight measurements of ambient temperature and wind patterns – an important source of information for weather prediction and climate monitoring.

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The data contributes to the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay programme (Amdar) which collects, processes and transmits the information to ground stations via satellite or radio links.

The collapse of air travel, particularly over Europe, has seen a “dramatic” decrease in the number of measurements, the WMO said.

Data from Eumetnet, a network of 31 European national meteorological services, shows the significant decline in observations provided by airlines such as EasyJet and Germanwings in the past month.

(Source: Eumetnet via WMO)

Lars Peter Riishojgaard, director of the Earth System Branch in WMO’s infrastructure department, said that as the decrease of aircraft weather observations is expected to continue, “we may expect a gradual decrease in reliability of the forecasts”.

WMO said European countries affiliated to the network are currently discussing ways to boost the short-term capabilities of other parts of their observing networks to partly mitigate the loss of aircraft observations.

In developing countries, the meteorological community still relies on surface-based weather observations that are compiled and processed manually. Over the last two weeks, WMO reported a “significant decrease” in the availability of manual observations.

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WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned that although national meteorological and hydrological services currently continue to provide data and observations, “we are mindful of the increasing constraints on capacity and resources”.

“The impacts of climate change and growing amount of weather-related disasters continue,” he said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic poses an additional challenge, and may exacerbate multi-hazard risks at a single country level. Therefore it is essential that governments pay attention to their national early warning and weather observing capacities despite the coronavirus crisis.”

Elsewhere, the EU’s earth observation programme Copernicus is helping researchers and policy-makers monitor the atmosphere and air quality across Europe. The agency has launched  a web platform  to provide updated air quality information on a daily and weekly basis.

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