Cell-Phone Towers Double as Weather Forecasters Every notice how your cell-phone reception gets fuzzier when it's raining? Annoying, sure, but scientists found an upside to the crummy reception. A new study uses signal strength at cell-phone towers to provide data for weather forecasters.

Cell-Phone Towers Double as Weather Forecasters

Cell-Phone Towers Double as Weather Forecasters

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Every notice how your cell-phone reception gets fuzzier when it's raining? Annoying, sure, but scientists found an upside to the crummy reception. A new study uses signal strength at cell-phone towers to provide data for weather forecasters.

HOWARD BERKES, host:

There are all kinds of things that can interfere with cell phone signals, including bad weather, and as we all know, there isn't much we can do about the weather, but we can use the cell-phone system to make weather forecasts more accurate. At least that's what some scientists now claim. NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

A little over a year ago, a rainstorm rolled over Jerusalem in Tel Aviv. Hagit Messer is an engineer at Tel Aviv University. She remembers the storm well.

Prof. HAGIT MESSER (Tel Aviv University): In Israel, any rain is a big event, but it wasn't unusually big. It was a rainy day in the Israeli winter.

BOYCE: That January day was the one that Messer picked to see if she could track rainfall using cell-phone signals. Now, all kinds of things can weaken cell-phone signals as they travel from your phone to a tower or from one tower to another. One of the biggest problems is rain, and Messer knew that cell-phone companies are constantly monitoring the strength of their signals to give them a boost, if necessary. So she convinced one company to give her its measurements. They came from 1,700 towers that are scattered around Israel. Her team then used those records to make a new kind of weather map.

Prof. MESSER: On TV, when you see the forecast, you see how the clouds with the rain move from one area to the other. The maps that we created, you could see exactly the same effect that you see the clouds and the rain going from west to east, and when we saw the first result, it was like a miracle. It was a big excitement.

BOYCE: The excitement is that cell-phone towers could someday improve weather forecasts. Meteorologists currently map rainfall with rain gauges and radar. Rain gauges can tell you exactly how much rain fell but only in one place. Radar covers a bigger area but gives less detailed information. So all those cell-phone towers that are scattered around the world could help fill in the gaps, and you wouldn't necessarily have to install any new equipment. Todd Miner is a meteorologist at Penn State University. He says that's what makes this approach so appealing.

Mr. TODD MINER (Meteorologist): As a meteorologist, often times the more data the better. I mean, there's a lot of world out there, a lot of land and areas that are not adequately covered, so any time you can obtain more information on that, it can only be a good thing.

BOYCE: The study of this one rainfall appears in the journal Science. Other teams are also looking at ways to monitor the weather using cell-phone towers. They're optimistic, but no matter how well it works, it will all depend on the willingness of cell-phone companies to help out with the weather report. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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