How airliner data improves weather forecasting

When severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash floods, or winter storms threaten the Washington region automated observations from airliners taking off and landing at airports as far away as Philadelphia give NWS forecasters a more detailed picture of what the atmosphere is up to.

These observations “really help you in updating what’s going on,” says Steven Zubrick, the science and operations officer at the Sterling, Va., NWS office. “We can call up the soundings on our work stations and display a diagram that plots temperatures, pressure, altitude, and latitudes and longitudes, and in some cases humidity.”

In effect, the airliners are supplying sounding data up through the atmosphere like that from radiosondes attached to the weather balloons that Sterling and some other NWS offices normally launch twice a day.

Zubrick says forecasters can display reports from an airliner side by side with the most recent balloon sounding. “This gives you a idea of what the trends are; it’s kind of nice.”

Takeoff and landing data are only a small part of the information that airliners feed into the world’s weather forecasting models each day. Globally, airlines including those from the U.S. supply  “well over 450,000 observations per day,” the World Meteorological Organization reported in May.

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