According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, on an average day, air traffic controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights in the United States. Some of those planes are equipped with a special piece of technology that collects and transmits Aircraft Meteorological Data Reports, AMDAR.
Estimates are that 140,000 of these reports are collected per day nationally, and over 670,000 per day around the world. According to the World Meteorological Organization, there are 38 national airlines contributing data globally. Alaska, American, Delta, Federal Express, Southwest, United, and the United Parcel Service are the ones that participate here in the U.S.
These reports include the wind speed and direction with height - called a vertical profile of wind - as well as the vertical temperature profile. Depending on the instrument, dew points and other variables may also be recorded.
AMDAR fills in the gaps that exist in our data collection using weather balloons. Across the country, there are only about 60 National Weather Service sites that launch weather balloons twice per day. The balloons carry instruments into the atmosphere called rawinsondes that transmit similar data. You can imagine how with an area as large as the United States, 60 stations are not nearly enough to get a full picture of what is going on in the air above us.
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The information collected is used as initial data in several of computer models that American meteorologists use to make forecasts. It is also used in global models. Studies have proven that this accurate, reliable information coming from the air above a greater percentage of the country has greatly improved the accuracy of our forecasts. It should be no surprise. With computer models, the output is only as good as the input. Better data going in will always improve the information coming out.
Now that you know, the next time you get on an airplane, you might do as I do and ask yourself, "Is my flight going to help make the weather forecast?"