You can add weather monitoring to your cell phone's fancy new features. A recent study from the Tel Aviv University School of Engineering used the signal strength from cell phone base stations to monitor the intensity of rainfall in those exact locations. Such a wide network of real-time rain gauges could lead to improved weather forecasts, says Hagit Messer-Yaron, who led the study: "Out of better measurements, you can get better models."
Cell phone providers work hard to hide the fact that weather, especially rain, weakens cell phone reception. They closely track the signal strength and adjust it so that end users never notice when a downpour plays havoc with their bars. Messer-Yaron and her colleagues took that information and turned it around to calculate rainfall around the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. The results closely matched those from rain gauges on the ground but provided much wider coverage. And they beat out expensive radar equipment in accuracy by as much as 27 percent.
"The idea of using microwaves or electromagnetic radiation to predict weather conditions is not new," Messer-Yaron says, but this is the first time someone has used free data to do it. "It doesn't cost cell providers anything because they make these measurements anyway." Her lab is now measuring hail, snow, and fog.