The Earth Observing System capacity has been put in place in the past 50 years by the space satellite industry, the airline companies, the technological sensor development companies in alliance with the research and innovation community, including the science and engineering academic sectors.
This observing capacity allows us to forecast the atmospheric and ocean weather, validate models for climate predictions, map the risk of extreme natural and man-induced events in the environment, reduce the disaster risk, facilitate science-based policies. Part of the system uses commercial activities as platforms of opportunity to decrease costs and increase benefits to both the public and private sectors.
Now COVID-19 has determined a large loss in this observing capacity in particular from commercial airliners that contribute to the WMO Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay programme (AMDAR, see Fig. 1), which uses onboard sensors, computers and communications systems to automatically collect, process, format and transmit meteorological observations to ground stations via satellite or radio links. The number of observations sent to ground decreased in April 2020 from 14000 to a bit more than 2000 for Lufthansa and from 16000 to zero for easyJet.
Another program of measurements that is going to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is the surface drifting buoy programme (see Fig.1). These buoys are carried around by ocean currents and measure waves, surface pressure among other climate variables. They are deployed from commercial vessels and they have a fine lifetime so they need to be replaced with a specific protocol of deployment in time to maintain a fleet of about 1200 drifting buoys around the world oceans. Due to the pandemic, almost no buoys where deployed in March and April has reduced the deployment so that It is supposed to decrease in April even more so that it is expected that the number of transmitting buoys from the ocean will decrease as much as 20% in the next 6 months.
In an article in Nature News few weeks ago, it is reported that as climate- and ecological-monitoring projects go dark, data that stretch back for decades will soon contain coronavirus-associated gaps. Scientists collecting data in offshore areas of the world ocean have to go to the stations site about 2-4 times a year to replace/calibrate the sensors, submerged in the corrosive seawaters, so that the measurement record maintains its accuracy and validity. These activities will be partially suspended due to the COVID pandemic with far-reaching consequences for the time series integrity and the monitoring of earth system changes.
From the same article, the English Met Office refers that the loss of aircraft observations will increase their forecast error by 1–2%, but notes that, in areas where flights are typically more abundant, forecast accuracy might suffer even more.
Dr. Peteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, says: “The impacts of climate change and growing amount of weather-related disasters continue. 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 COVID-19 crisis.”.
We hope Taalas’s message will be collected also by the Italian government that is formulating the Phase 2 of COVID response: we have to assess the potential effects of the pandemic on the Italian monitoring and forecasting system and work adequately to re-put it in place for public security and the science-based management of risks.