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Keeping airports up to date with the latest weather

UPS airplanes at Louisville's airport.
Rick Howlett
UPS airplanes in Louisville.

Science Behind the Forecast explores how airports get the latest weather.

Every week Wave 3 meteorologist Tawana Andrew breaks down what we know and what we don't about the climate and weather here in Louisville.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bill Burton: It's time for us to take a look at the Science Behind the Forecast as I am joined by WAVE 3 meteorologist Tawana Andrew. Good morning, Tawana.

Tawana Andrew: Good morning. We're really nerding out today, I mean, a little bit more than usual. When it comes to this Science Behind the Forecast because we're talking aviation today.

BB: Aviation, the weather forecasts for it and we get to learn some acronyms so it's gonna be a fun day. Bring it on! What do we need to know about this?

TA: So having an accurate forecast, of course is a vital important component of aviation. So you have METARs and TAFs.

BB: METARs and TAPs, okay.

TA: Now they're TAFs, not taps. Remember not like, you know, taps like you're tapping on a keyboard. T-A-Fs, yes, for anybody who was questioning that. They help pilots prepare for any variation of weather that they may encounter. So METARS are typically auto generated while the National Weather Service meteorologists, those will produce TAFs and a meteorological aerodrome report or METAR. Yeah, we're great at naming things in weather, aren't we? Or an aviation routine weather report those record, report, and transmit weather observation for airports globally.

So a METAR is a specific weather report rendered by an airport weather observation system. The report covers the weather conditions within a five-mile radius of the center of an airfield, and it typically updates every hour at a minimum, some airports you'll get updates even faster than that, especially if the weather is changing rapidly. And METARs help pilots plan takeoffs and landings. Because it's super important for them to know what takeoff speed they need, the landing distance they need, even their thrust settings and all of that, they calculate based on METAR observations. So that that includes the airport's location, the date, the time, wind direction, wind speed, clouds, ceilings, the current temperature and dew point in Celsius, because we got to be fancy. We have to have atmospheric pressure and sea level pressure because that can vary depending on the airport because you'll see a different atmospheric pressure and sea level pressure, let's say for Denver than you would see for Atlanta, and any ongoing weather phenomena.

Now a TAF that is a terminal aerodrome forecast and is the official FAA forecast for aviation in the US. And this provides crucial weather information for flight planning and aircraft movement. So basically, it's helping all of the pilots figure out where they have to go as they travel across the country. These are issued four times daily in six-hour intervals. And they typically are valid for 24 hours, but for let's say, an international airport like in Atlanta, those TAFs cover about 30 hours. And they also include wind direction and speed, the clouds ceilings surface visibility, precipitation type, it also includes low level wind shear, which is super important in terms of takeoffs and landings. And those typically don't change until the next publication time, unless there is a major traffic shift for any airlines or if there's an error in the data, which doesn't happen that often.

BB: That's a lot to digest with METARs and TAFs. And I think maybe next week we should have a quiz about this just to see who remembers what. But now we have a much better understanding of all of it. Thanks to the latest edition of Science Behind the Forecast with WAVE 3 meteorologist Tawana Andrew. Thanks for the knowledge, Tawana.

TA: Of course.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.