wireless towers fog wireless towers fog Cell towers and the wireless signals that bind them have inadvertently become a powerful tool in the fight to better predict fog. (Photo: Jan Jirous /Shutterstock)

Using cell towers to detect hazardous fog

Our hunger for faster smartphone data speeds may one day give meteorologists a new tool to monitor fog.

For many of us, the threat of fog on a warm morning drive can mean nothing more than a slight, if not eerily beautiful, inconvenience. Every now and again, however, this weather phenomenon can suddenly turn from light mist to blanket-thick, masking the road ahead of us and turning travel conditions hazardous.

While meteorologists can often predict the occurrence of fog based on weather conditions, tracking it is generally limited to satellite imagery and costly fog-detecting sensors. But what if detailed fog detection was made possible with already-installed technology? A team of Israeli researchers from Tel Aviv University has discovered an effective and practical new method for tracking fog in real-time – and it all starts with the smartphone you're likely reading this on.

That's right – smartphones and the cell towers that make them work have inadvertently become our newest vanguards in the worldwide effort to better predict fog. To understand how this is all possible, it's best to think of the cell towers that dot our landscape as one giant spider web. Each is connected via a network of wireless microwaves radiating through the air. As these transmissions encounter weather phenomena such as fog, signal strength decreases, painting a real-time picture of what's happening at ground level.

dense road fogHigh-resolution ground-based fog detection from cellular towers could help give motorists advanced warning of hazardous driving conditions. (Photo: Naufal MQ/Shutterstock)

Well, kind of. Up until a few years ago, cell towers transmitted at frequencies of between 6 and 40 gigahertz, a signal range that was less susceptible to weather and could only detect very thick fog. Since we've all become used to streaming Netflix on our phones and sending media over text messaging, wireless operators have been deploying higher frequencies to cope with demands for greater bandwidth. While great for catching up on "House of Cards" or "Daredevil," these new frequencies are also much more sensitive to weather conditions.

"Since these higher frequencies are highly sensitive to the effects of fog, a new opportunity to potentially acquire wide-scale, high resolution observations of fog in real time has emerged," Dr. Noam David of the Department of Geosciences at TAU's Faculty of Exact Sciences told Phys.org.

While the concept of leveraging cell towers for weather monitoring is in the early stages, the researchers have had success using existing microwave links in Israel to detect fine to heavy concentrations of fog. As the world's cell networks improve, so too will the opportunities to take advantage of our connected resources to better shape our forecasts. Such a future is not only good news for mobile content, but also for the safety of millions of motorists.

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