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COVID-19 makes it harder to know when to harvest sugar beets

Decisions depend on the weather, but accurate long-term forecasts are another casualty of the pandemic.

October is always a busy month for Rhonda Hergenrider. On her 700-acre farm in south-central Montana, 15 miles north of the Wyoming border, it’s sugar beet harvest season. She, her father, a hired helper and her sister — a schoolteacher who helps on weekends — typically work 16- to 18-hour days for two to three weeks, using a defoliator to lop off the beets’ leafy green tops, then a harvester to pull the vegetables out of the ground. As with any harvest, timing is key, and weather is a wild card: Wet or frigid conditions make harvesting difficult, while warm temperatures can spoil harvested beets.

And this year, weather predictions are more precarious than usual, because of COVID-19. To create forecasts, meteorologists look to weather models fueled in part by temperature, pressure and humidity readings collected by commercial flights. But as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, travel ground to a halt: In March, air traffic was cut by 75% to 80%, leaving meteorologists with just a fraction of their usual data, and, by September, many airlines were still operating less than half their pre-pandemic flights. Fewer readings mean that experts have an incomplete picture of what’s happening in our skies, resulting in murkier forecasts for farmers.

A helper at a beet receiving station shovels scattered beets onto the pile during the first day of the annual sugar beet harvest in Culbertson, Montana. Accurate weather forecasting is essential as farmers decide when to harvest the delicate crop. Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

While weather models also use data from weather balloons, ground-based sensors and satellite images, flights fill in important gaps. That’s especially true in what Don Day, a meteorologist in Cheyenne, Wyoming, calls “weather-data deserts,” like the skies above the Pacific Ocean. Because temperatures and storms that eventually hit the Western U.S. begin over the Pacific, transoceanic flights provide particularly valuable data for forecasters in the West. “If you don’t have good inputs over the oceans, you’re going to have weather forecasts that aren’t going to be as accurate,” Day said.

The problem is magnified for long-term forecasts. Typically, flight-collected data helps meteorologists estimate how weather patterns might evolve in the coming days. But the complex interactions between temperature and moisture in the upper atmosphere change quickly, so less frequent, more outdated readings mean worse predictions, especially for forecasts a week in advance.

See the rest of the story here: https://www.hcn.org/articles/north-covid-19-makes-it-harder-to-know-when-to-harvest-sugar-beets

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle.

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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