A GPS clock rollover that experts predicted would have little impact because of years of advance notice has caused the grounding of the Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) weather balloons.
- GPS clocks returned to zero early on Sunday morning
- BOM’s weather balloons and some Boeing aircraft were grounded because of the glitch
- BOM says de-staffing regional offices was not a factor
BOM declined to be interviewed by the ABC, but provided a statement confirming it had ceased weather balloon observations due to a “technical fault with the equipment’s communications systems”.
The ABC understands the fault was caused by the rollover of the time stamp in GPS signals.
Similar to the Y2K, or millennium bug, where some computer calendars rolled back to the year 00, GPS clocks returned to zero early on Sunday morning.
BOM weather balloons carry a device called a radiosonde that includes GPS tracking.
RMIT University geospatial scientist Ken Harima told the ABC before the weekend GPS rollover that only older GPS technology was at risk of a problem as hardware manufacturers have had years to prepare.
But in its statement, BOM said its equipment supplier advised the Bureau of the fault after the rollover on April 7, and balloon launches ceased on April 8.
Vital information missing
BOM’s website said normally 56 weather balloons were launched each day from 38 locations, and they provided “vital information” that helped meet “international obligations under the Convention of the World Meteorological Organization”.
How GPS works
- Around 30 satellites in the GPS constellation circle the planet 20,000km overhead, each completing two orbits of the Earth in a day
- Each satellite broadcasts microwave signals containing information about its position and time towards Earth
- GPS receivers combine signals from several satellites in a process called trilateration to calculate its position on Earth
- Local global navigation satellite systems use geosynchronous satellites, which are in a fixed position above a specific location
- These local systems can provide accurate position information, even among tall buildings
University of Queensland weather researcher Andrew Schwartz said he used weather balloon data in his research into forecasting severe storms.
He said weather balloons also provided important direct measurements of the atmosphere used to inform and correct weather models in Australia and around the world.
“We use them as forecasters, but we also use them in the weather models themselves,” Mr Schwartz said.
“Having that data missing from an entire region like Australia is really kind of going to play havoc with some of those global weather models.”
BOM’s statement said “the issue did not impact the Bureau’s capacity to issue accurate and timely forecasts and warnings”.
De-staffing of regional offices by automating weather observations, including automated weather balloon launches, has attracted criticism of BOM in recent years.
But BOM’s statement said automation was not a factor in this case.
The ABC also contacted aircraft manufacturer Boeing which confirmed that the GPS clock rollover caused “a limited number of 787 airplanes” to display the wrong date, causing them to be temporarily grounded in China.
BOM’s statement said that following a “fix for the global software issue”, balloon launches were resumed in several locations on the morning of April 9.
“All other balloon launching sites are expected to resume operations throughout the day,” the statement said.
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