Can obnoxious cell phone towers help predict floods?

Wireless communication networks are in effect built-in environmental monitoring facilities.

the ubiquitous cell tower
Seems those sometimes hideous cell towers that dot the landscape like so many odd looking trees can serve a higher purpose: accurately predict strong storms and flooding that might get people out of danger faster. 

Researchers at Tel Aviv University say they developed a system that can analyze cell phone signals and determine flood risk basically by estimating humidity from data collected through existing wireless communication networks.

In a paper researchers stated:  By monitoring the specific and fluctuating atmospheric moisture around cell phone towers throughout America, we can cheaply, effectively and reliably provide a more accurate 'critical moisture distribution.'  Weather conditions and atmospheric phenomena affect the electromagnetic channel, causing attenuations to the radio signals.

Wireless communication networks are in effect built-in environmental monitoring facilities. The wireless microwave links, used in these networks, are widely deployed by cellular providers for backhaul communication between base stations, a few tens of meters above ground level. As a result, if all available measurements are used the system reliably provide a more accurate 'critical moisture distribution' level for fine-tuning model predictions of big floods.

Researchers also note that the implementation cost is minimal, since the data used are already collected and saved by the cellular operators. In addition - many of these links are installed in areas where access is difficult such as orographic terrain and complex topography. As such, the system enables measurements in places that have been hard to measure in the past, or have never been measured before.

The technique is restricted to weather conditions that exclude rain, fog or clouds along the propagation path, according to researchers. Strong winds that may cause movement of the link transmitter or receiver (or both) may also interfere with the ability to conduct accurate measurements, researchers noted.

Using real data measurements collected from the towers, the researchers demonstrated how microwave links in a cellular network correlated with surface station humidity measurements. The data provided by cell phone towers is the missing link weather forecasters need to improve the accuracy of flood forecasting. The microwave data used in this study was supplied by two cellular providers Cellcom and Pelephone in Israel, according to professor Pinhas Alpert, a geophysicist and head of Tel Aviv University's Porter School for Environmental Education. Alpert co-researched the paper on the system with professor Hagit Messer Yaron and doctoral fellow Noam David.

This research isn't the first time Alpert has looked into using cellphone signals for other uses.  In 2006 he co-reported how cellphone signals could be used to measure rainfall.

That paper stated that the ups and downs of signal strength in wireless communications can be used to accurately monitor rainfall in real time over a wide area.

The principal behind this is something commonly experienced in the days before cable television: Stormy weather meant a bad picture on your TV. That's because electromagnetic signals are weakened by certain types of weather, in particular, rain. It's that same phenomenon that can cause cellphone communication to falter during bad weather, researchers stated.

Weather-related technologies can be hot commodities.  Recently a study by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) found that one way or another nine out of 10 adult Americans get weather forecasts an average of more than three times each day, adding up to 300 billion forecasts each year. And not only that, most people were satisfied with weather forecasts and had fairly high confidence in forecasts with a lead time of one to two days, despite appearances to the contrary.

Those numbers are the result of the first-of-its-kind study that looked at the public's perceptions, uses, and values of weather forecasts. In addition to the survey, scientists wanted to quantify the value of placed on forecasts. 

While the authors cautioned that it is difficult to put a dollar figure on the value of forecasts, the survey indicated that households place an average value of 10.5 cents on every weather forecast obtained. This equates to an annual value of $31.5 billion.  In comparison, the cost of providing forecasts by government agencies and private companies is $5.1 billion, the scientists said.

"Weather forecasts equate to an enormous volume and multiplicity of information, when you account for the array of forecast providers, communication channels and the size and diversity of the U.S. population," said NCAR scientist and lead paper author Jeffrey Lazo in a release.

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