How the COVID-19 crisis affects information on the state of our environment?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all areas of our lives, but only some of them are clearly visible to the public. One of such hidden effects is related to the acquisition of environmental data.

Many areas of the environmental data collection have been affected by the ongoing pandemic. Aircraft-based observations of temperature and wind have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. These observations (known as AMDAR reports) are down by about 78% globally and 90% over Europe. Responding to this, National Meteorological Services have increased the number of radiosonde daily launches.

The COVID-19 crisis has also spiraled gaps in other types of data. While most ground-based weather stations or moored buoys are automatic, maintaining them requires engineering, e.g. people that can travel on-site regularly and work in calibration laboratories, which in some countries has been severely compromised due to strict lockdowns.

Data provided by in situ observing systems require several stages of quality control. If some can be automated, a lot of them need manual intervention from staff that may not be able to telework with the same capacities as usual.

Automatic stations like high-frequency radars, tide gauges, anchors, argo floats, gliders, and drifting buoys are currently maintaining their operation, but a medium-term concern could come from the lack of maintenance of these stations, stopped during the present situation, that may affect the data delivery later in autumn and winter.

A decrease has been detected in marine observations from ferryboxes and research vessels since most vessels have returned to port. The reduction in data streams is observable at both global and regional scale, and particularly in the Arctic. Stopping the research vessels activities will affect all types of data collection, from physical to biological and biogeochemical.

Depending on the country, the European research vessels are expected to resume their activities between June and September. This together with the temporary closure of some instrument manufacturers may also impact the deployment of Argo floats and drifter floats, leading to a potential decrease in the number of observations in the coming months. Data providers are currently identifying the geographical areas where gaps in the spatial distribution of floats would form – to prioritize deployments in these areas.

Modern data assimilation systems can mitigate part of the reduction of the in situ data, but this is not the case for the collection of climate time series. Any reduction in this data collection will have a negative effect and some gaps will not be recoverable.

A significant part of the in situ data collection is based on time-limited research projects and national funding. It is important to maintain that funding despite additional new priorities linked to Corona-related research or economic recovery plans. Several EU Copernicus services have detected various degrees of risks linked to the in situ data gaps resulted from the COVID-19 crisis. These risks are being evaluated in both short, medium, and long run, as the repercussions of the crisis will be seen through a long period of time.

This article was prepared by EuroGOOS for the Copernicus In Situ website, where it was published on 18 May 2020. The article is based on expert contributions from the Copernicus Marine, Climate, and Atmosphere Services, as well as EUMETNET. 

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