Weather Forecasting Made Easier With Smartphones And Tablets
February 7, 2013

Weather Forecasting Made Easier With Smartphones And Tablets

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Observation has long been a key component in forecasting the weather. Early civilizations relied on reoccurring astronomical and meteorological events to help monitor seasonal changes in the weather, while short-term weather changes were predicted — with varying degrees of accuracy — by changes based on appearances of clouds and other optical phenomena.

More recently satellites and supercomputers have been used to gather data to provide weather forecasts. However, the next advance in weather forecasting could come from smartphones and tablet computers.

Researchers at the University of Washington are looking to utilize the pressure sensors that are available in the newest smartphones to develop better weather forecasting techniques, the school announced on Thursday.

“With this approach we could potentially have tens or hundreds of thousands of additional surface pressure observations, which could significantly improve short-term weather forecasts,” said Cliff Mass, University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, in a statement.

The research at UW has been funded by Microsoft Corp. and the National Weather Service (NWS), and if successful the researchers hope to supply the technique for forecasting to the National Weather Service as well as weather bureaus in other countries.

This line of research is now being made possible by new technology in the latest generation of mobile handsets.

While smartphones have long included GPS chips to track location, and some devices even have accelerators to measure speed, many new devices now feature pressure sensors, which provide a way for the handset to measure elevation and further pinpoint location.

The inclusion of this technology in devices carried by the masses gave Mass an opportunity to enhance weather prediction.

This could become crowd-sourced weather forecasting, as owners of certain Android OS handsets and tablet devices could download the PressureNet app, which measures atmospheric pressure and in turn provides the data to the UW researchers.

Android devices released to date that are equipped with pressure sensors include Samsung´s Galaxy S3, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note and Nexus 4 smartphones, and the Nexus 10 and Motorola Xoom tablet computers.

Last year Mass approached Cumulonimbus, a Canadian app developer that had previously created a barometer application for smartphones. That app collects all barometric data from all its users and shares it back, providing a crowd-sourced reading of changing conditions — just the sort of thing that can help forecast the weather.

The pressure sensors can determine atmospheric pressure, which is the weight of the air above, and this can provide information about what is happening as air masses collide. Precise tracking of pressure readings along with pressure changes could add a way to help weather forecasters pinpoint exactly where and when a major storm will strike.

The new PressureNet App has already been collecting about 4,000 observations per hour, with most users clustered in the northeastern United States and around major cities. The next step is going to be getting not only more users, but more users clustered together.

“We need more density,” Mass added. “Right now it´s a matter of getting more people to contribute.”

As with real estate it could also be about location, location, location; and Mass remains most interested about utilizing this technology in the middle of the United States, an area prone to severe storms, but one that also includes fewer weather observation stations.

Being able to track storms even a few hours in advance could allow people to better protect themselves and their property.

Thunderstorms are one of the areas of weakest skill for forecasting,” Mass said. “I think thunderstorms in the middle part of the country could potentially be the biggest positive for this approach. They are relatively small-scale, they develop over a few hours, they can be severe and can affect people significantly.”