Will your phone be used to help predict the weather?

Meteorologists rely on knowing the current weather in order to predict what will happen in the future. Without properly understanding our current state, we are not able to accurately forecast conditions in the future. Currently, weather observations are made at official surface observing stations around the globe. These stations measure temperature, humidity, and other weather information, including one of the most significant and important variables for forecasting: air pressure. Recent studies have shown that air pressure can indicate more about the three-dimensional picture of the atmosphere than we originally thought. This means that having the most precise air pressure information is more important than ever to weather forecasters.

Currently, weather observation stations can be relatively sparse, but conditions are improving. A decade ago, the only surface observation data available to meteorologists was only Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) stations, located at about 1000 airports across the country. Since the advent of the internet, however, more and more entities require this data and are constructing their own surface observation networks. However, this weather information is still not high of a resolution for the most advanced weather models, which can simulate the weather at grid spacing of 1 km or less. This means that a higher-density network of sensors is needed. Each surface observation station is expensive, and plastering them all over is impractical and does not look nice. This is where phones can come in.

As I mentioned in my  previous post, barometers are becoming a much more widely included sensor in new Android phones. Barometers, which provide the measure of air pressure that is so critical, also have the advantage of working both indoors and outdoors without calibration. This means that the sensor data can be easily used without having to be concerned about the quality of the data. More importantly, utilizing the barometer in mobile devices could lead to a nearly 10,000x increase in the number of hourly pressure observations being taken across the United States.

An increase in the number of pressure readings has specific value to one of the most important kinds of forecasting: forecasting for severe thunderstorm and tornado events. Some of the most important variables for this kind of forecasting are “subtle troughs, drylines, convergence lines, and remnants of past cold pools can supply major clues about potential convective development—information that dense collections of smartphone pressures might well be able to provide” (Mass and Madaus, 2014). In fact, the authors ran a case study of an atmospheric model utilizing a subset of the available pressure readings now, and found that the model was producing more accurate results. Further research is needed, but eventually smartphone data can and will be used to help predict the weather.

Article: Clifford F. Mass and Luke E. Madaus, 2014: Surface Pressure Observations from Smartphones: A Potential Revolution for High-Resolution Weather Prediction?. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95, 1343–1349.