Sunday, February 10, 2013

Smartphones, tablets help researchers improve storm forecasts

Hannah Hickey in University of Washington News: The next advance in weather forecasting may not come from a new satellite or supercomputer, but from a device in your pocket. University of Washington atmospheric scientists are using pressure sensors included in the newest smartphones to develop better weather forecasting techniques.

“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, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

Owners of certain new Android smartphones and tablet computers can now download the PressureNet app, which measures atmospheric pressure and provides the data to UW researchers. When some smartphone manufacturers recently added pressure sensors, to estimate the phone’s elevation and help pinpoint its location, Mass saw an opportunity to enhance weather prediction. In the autumn he approached Cumulonimbus, a Canadian app company that developed a barometer application for smartphones that collects all the data and shares it back with users.

The PressureNet app this week collected about 4,000 observations per hour, with users clustered in the northeastern United States and around some major cities. “We need more density,” Mass said. “Right now it’s a matter of getting more people to contribute.”

Android devices 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.

Atmospheric pressure is the weight of the air above, and includes information about what is happening as air masses collide. Precise tracking of pressure readings and pressure changes could help weather forecasters to pinpoint exactly where and when a major storm will strike.

Mass is particularly interested in the center of the country, which is prone to severe storms but includes fewer weather observation stations. “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.”...

Photo by Harald Hoyer, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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