The Cascading Problems Of Not Understanding Weather—And How Aviation Can Solve Them

A community of farmers in Southern Uganda replants their crops next to a nearby river to save them from a drought.

What they don't know is that an unseasonable amount of heavy rainfall will likely hit the region based on last year’s weather patterns. Eventually, the rain arrives and the crops are flooded. Now, not only is the community facing a famine, but the flood has contaminated their water source and a major health crisis is taking hold.

Natural weather cycles like these are constantly happening right before our eyes, yet we fail to accurately forecast and predict them—and the cascading negative impacts are colossal. Improving forecast skill and weather knowledge to some may sound like a problem for scientists alone, but with today’s technology permeating all aspects of life and industry, this is far from the case.

With the convergence of three core exponential technologies—sensors, computing power, and communication—we are standing at a unique moment in history where we can see the dynamic aspects of our Earth’s weather and climate like never before. But even with our many efforts in science, physics, and biology to explore this edge of knowledge about our planet’s climate, we still have much more to learn.

While it’s easy to say that technology itself is an obstacle in advancing forecasting technology and weather knowledge, it is not.

Rather, there is a great deal of existing technology and infrastructure that can be leveraged in new ways to advance weather knowledge, and in doing so, form a more sustainable existence on this one planet that we have.

Aviation’s Opportunity To Improve Global Forecast Skill

Today’s cars, planes, boats, spacecraft, drones, and satellites, are all equipped with high-power sensors that are collecting unfathomable scales of data, yet most of this data is not being used to advance our understanding of the weather. But what if it were?

With the reach of aircraft spanning across the globe, and at almost all times of day, the aviation industry stands in a unique position to become leaders in this, by leveraging its connected, distributed systems of aircraft to advance weather knowledge and forecast skill.

Turning aircraft into weather sensors has in fact already been demonstrated effective (AMDAR), with an estimated potential to increase certain forecast skill by 30 to 50%. Expanding efforts to equip airplanes with sensing technology will enable aircraft to capture key environmental data such as water vapor, air pollution levels, particulate data, as well as data about land/air energy exchange during flight routes. All of this data will help us begin connecting the dots of the planet’s weather.

Project Monark, coming out of Airbus’ Silicon Valley innovation center Acubed, is an example of an initiative driving this forward, by turning Airbus aircraft into weather-sensing devices that capture atmospheric profiles using already present GNSS/GPS data from avionics systems and a technique called GNSS-RO (Radio Occultation). The team is also building a new set of analytics tools that can leverage a system of distributed, connected aircraft to dramatically improve forecasting skill and aid in the sustainable growth of commercial aviation at large.

Beyond this, using aircraft to gather environmental data can help close fundamental knowledge gaps about the interactions between various elements of our earth that are critical to understand, for example, peering into the relationship between waves and the development of hurricanes.

Sustainable Growth in Aviation Through Enhanced Forecasts

With the prediction that total aircraft fleet is set to more than double from today’s nearly 23,000 to almost 48,000 by 2038, growing traffic at 4.3% annually, improving forecasting technology and weather knowledge plays a critical role in the sustainable growth of the aviation industry.

Combined with recent CO2 emission level parameters set by the European Commission that the aviation industry has agreed to stay within, now more than ever it is critical to find new means for greater aircraft fuel efficiencies.

Turning to hardware solutions alone for improved aircraft efficiency can only go so far, and the limits on improvements to engine hardware efficiencies are in some cases soon to be hit. Alternatively, it has been proven that increased weather knowledge of flight routes can improve flight efficiencies and passenger loads by up to 25%, leading to reduced emissions per passenger, and saving over $40 Million in fuel costs for a single airline.

As the aviation industry expands globally and moves into areas of the world with low forecast skill, turning aircraft into weather-sensors also creates a unique opportunity to help these regions leapfrog existing European and US weather-forecasting infrastructure, similar to how cell phone technology leapfrogged landlines in many developing countries.

Understanding Weather: A Worthy Pursuit of Knowledge

Today, we stand at a unique moment in time where we can use our technical and geographic expansion to create a new awareness of our weather systems and climate that was previously impossible. The beautiful paradox here, is that while today’s technology at times pushes us away from our natural world, it also holds the power to bring us closer to understanding our environment, and this spaceship we are all living in. In this way, technology can help us form a more balanced relationship with our planet, and become better stewards of our earth.

Most importantly, advancing our current knowledge about the planet’s weather is not a technological conundrum. It is a question of whether institutions, leaders, and organizations are motivated to move in this direction, which presents a regulatory opportunity to help these groups make more collectively sustainable choices. We have the available technology to advance our weather knowledge to a new cutting edge of understanding, which begs the question, how will we choose to wield the power of these tools?