cell tower cell tower Cell towers aren't always attractive. But they have hidden value. (Photo: Brian Wolfe/Flickr)

Cloudy with a chance of cell service

The electromagnetic signals between cell towers could be used to measure rainfall, snow and fog.

Your smartphone may do some pretty amazing things, but the cell towers that enable your phone are no slouches either. Not only can they transmit information from phone to phone, but, according to new research, they can also measure and predict the weather.

Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron from Tel Aviv University has been working on this idea for several years. It's based on the split second that it takes for the electromagnetic waves containing your phone calls and other data to be transmitted from cell tower to cell tower. Under perfect conditions, those electromagnetic waves travel almost instantly. But when water molecules are in the air – in the form of rain, snow or fog – those signals can get slightly slowed down.

While most engineers were working on ways to reduce this "loss" between towers, Messer-Yaron figured out another way to use it. By calculating the amount of loss, she could figure out how much rain or snow a region was experiencing, or even predict when it was about to get foggy. Using vast amounts of data provided by Israel's three main cellular companies, the researchers were able to use the electromagnetic waves to measure rain, sleet and snow over wide ranges of space and time and detect the presence of fog.

Why is this important? A report last year in Ensia pointed out that water-monitoring networks around the world are underfunded or even being eliminated. More data from networks like this would improve meteorological modeling and predication and help to alleviate the risk of water insecurity that will soon threaten large portions of the human populace.

Messer-Yaron has received two patents for her process, but she told i24 News that she doesn't plan on commercializing it. Instead, she hopes it will be used for "the public good" and that she is testing the technology in Africa and Europe.

Of course there are hurdles. She said that many cellular companies may not be as open to providing their data, which would stifle the technology in those areas. But even with that hurdle, she has high hopes for the technology, which she says could even be used to detect pollution. "Once you start to think about reverse engineering the signal," she told Ensia, "the opportunities are endless."


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