The pandemic has emptied the skies of aircraft, but it’s not just the airline industry that’s reeling from the sudden change.

Aircraft possess some of the most advanced electronic equipment available, some of which monitors the atmosphere during flight. You might not realise it during your flight, but aeroplanes automatically feed data to meteorologists who use it to create weather forecasts.

Since 1998, the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) system has collected data from 43 airlines, using devices on thousands of aircraft. These aeroplanes continuously record air temperature and pressure, wind speed, turbulence and water vapour and relay this via radio or satellite. On the ground, meteorologists input this data, along with data from ocean buoys, weather balloons and ground stations, into weather prediction models.

Aircraft-based observations in 2020 have fallen by up to 90% in some regions. How is all this affecting the weather forecast we check each day?

Studies have demonstrated that aircraft-based observations can reduce errors in forecasts by up to 20%. It’s thought that losing all aircraft data would reduce the accuracy of short-term flying level forecasts that are crucial for flight planning by up to 15%.

Organisations such as the European National Meteorological Service are launching additional weather balloons to try to fill the data gaps left by grounded aeroplanes.

Flight numbers are expected to recover to normal slowly. Until they do, patchy weather forecasts are another effect of the pandemic that’s going to take some getting used to.