Despite our best efforts, accurately predicting the weather remains about as easy as accurately predicting the next winning Powerball numbers. But with the installation of a new type of humidity sensor, the fleets of commercial passenger jets that inhabit our skies could soon provide meteorologists an unprecedented look at the sky—in real-time.
Developed through a partnership between Aeronautical Radio Incorporated (ARINC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and SpectraSensors, the Water Vapor Sensing System (WVSS-II) will take hundreds of humidity samples over the course of each flight and relay that data to the National Weather Service.
You see, relative humidity levels at various heights within the atmosphere provide vital hints to upcoming weather patterns. Forecasters use this data to predict the timing of fog, cloud cover, cloud ceilings, and all the other information airlines need to fly safely. And instead of employing traditional weather balloons stationed around the country to do this—which only sample twice a day—the NOAA wants to use planes themselves. They're already up there—making thousands of flights every day—so we might as well put them to use, right?
The humidity data the new sensor system sends to the National Weather Service.
"Water vapor is the most rapid-changing and under-sampled element in the atmosphere," Carl Weiss, an aviation meteorologist for NOAA, said in a press statement. "On the heels of a tumultuous weather year, WVSS-II is part of a larger initiative contributing to Weather Ready Nation, our initiative focused on building community resilience in the face of extreme weather events. WVSS-II data upon takeoffs and landings allow forecasters to monitor and stay on top of how moisture is changing in the atmosphere, specifically in severe weather situations when preparedness is especially important."
The project is still in its early stages, since only Southwest Airlines has signed on so far. However, should this proof of concept work, other carriers are likely to follow—and our ability to forecast the weather will get a huge boost in accuracy. And that won't just help warn us of impending weather events—it could also put an end to the ubiquitous panic-mongering, too.
UPDATE: Bryce Ford, Vice President of Atmospheric Programs for SpectraSensors has reached out with a bit of additional information regarding the WVSS-II's install base,
At this time there are actually 112 WVSS-II equipped aircraft operating here in the U.S. There are 87 as discussed by Southwest Airlines, plus 25 operating at United Parcel Services, UPS. UPS was actually the first to install WVSS-II here in the U.S., and has 25 units flying on 757-200 aircraft. UPS also provides that data to support the National Weather Service, and just like at Southwest Airlines, the UPS systems are done via the prime contractor ARINC. Southwest Airlines is the first U.S. passenger carrier to implement WVSS-II.
WVSS-II is also being installed on several Lufthansa aircraft in Germany, which is the first operator in Europe to begin implementations. They are doing that in conjunction with the German weather service, DWD. Several other weather service agencies around the world are planning implementations of WVSS-II with their partner airlines.
All of this is accomplished as part of the Aircraft Meteorological DAta Relay program, AMDAR, coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, WMO. AMDAR is a global program conducted by the world's meteorological service agencies to collect weather data from aircraft, for the improvement of weather forecasting everywhere. Our U.S. NWS is the largest contributor to the global AMDAR program, and leads the way with programs like WVSS-II. These aircraft observations have become a very valuable component of the global observing system for meteorology, and help to continuously improve the weather forecasts we all use every day.