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All of Mesa’s airborne aircraft. At even given time there are nearly 100 birds airborne. Weather is currently impacted Texas operations. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Tom Pallini)

How Commercial Airlines Help Predict the Weather

We all know that aviation touches everyone’s lives in some way, either directly or indirectly. In this interconnected world, there isn’t much that can’t be attributed to aviation to some degree. If someone digs deep enough, more often than not an aviation angle is found.

One surprising place that commercial aviation lends a helping hand is weather prediction. It’s common knowledge that various meteorological agencies around the world use a slew of tools to help accurately forecast the weather, however, not everyone knows that many commercial aircraft are among those tools.

Development of the Technology

In the case of the United States, the government has been using aircraft for atmospheric research since 1904, shortly after the historic Wright Brother’s flight in 1903. These early observations were initially quite rudimentary and eventually phased out in the late 1930s by radiosondes, and weather balloons.

As aviation grew in the United States, it again caught the interest of the government in atmospheric data collection. The advent of aircraft data links in the 1970s opened up the possibility of automated weather reports to be collected and transmitted by aircraft.

By the 1990s, technology had developed enough and with the agreement of various airlines in the United States,  a system for aircraft to collect weather data and transmit it to the National Weather Service was born. It goes by different names depending on where in the world it’s being referred to. It can go by MDCRS- Meteorological Data, Collection and Reporting System, which is the weather portion of ACARS- Aircraft Communications, Addressing, and Reporting System. It can also be referred to as AMDAR, Aircraft Meteorological Data Report, this is generally preferred by World Meteorological Organization and the National Weather Service.

The system has grown within the United States and globally since its creation and countries around the world use weather data collected by aircraft for their weather forecasts. A major benefit was the reduction in the need for radiosondes as aircraft could collect similar data for 1% of the cost. Several studies have also shown that AMDAR data can at times be slightly superior to data collected from radiosondes. This results in significant forecast model improvements allowing for weather forecasts to be created all the way out to 10 days.

Data collected and analyzed by the National Weather Service is also shared with airlines for their operational purposes.

AMDAR Uses

The data are collected by various existing sensors on aircraft and are used in a variety of forecasts from understanding low-level wind shear all the way to things like precipitation forecasts and thunderstorm prediction. The data can also be used in emergency situations to create dispersion models in the event of the release of hazardous materials into the environment.

This system has many advantages and disadvantages. The National Weather Service gets access to a large swath of data that it previously couldn’t. On the flip side, during bad weather events when flights are often canceled, there is a drop in the data that is collected. The reduction in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the amount of data available to the National Weather Service.

It is clear that the benefits are numerous and this system is here to stay. As technology develops, meteorologists will be able to create more accurate forecasts. This not only helps us on a daily basis but can also help save lives during severe weather events. All in part to an unexpected contribution by commercial aviation.

Author

  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

Hemal Gosai

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