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Mobile Phone Towers Could Help Predict Flash Flooding

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Researchers from Tel Aviv University say that they can use mobile phone towers to predict the intensity of¬ weather derived flooding, before it arrives. They said that such a technique could have acted as an early warning for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the US city.

Their model, protected by a patent application which analyses cell phone signals, adds an essential and critical component to weather forecasting, never before available.

"By monitoring the specific and fluctuating atmospheric moisture around cell phone towers throughout America, we can cheaply, effectively, and reliably provide a more accurate 'critical moisture distribution' level for fine-tuning model predictions of big floods," says Prof. Pinhas Alpert, a geophysicist and head of the Porter School for Environmental Education at Tel Aviv University.

Prof. Alpert and his co-researcher Prof. Hagit Messer Yaron proposed this new methodology for monitoring surface moisture last year, and with the help of a Tel Aviv University doctoral student Noam David, proved that the methodology works.

"How does it work? You know how the cell phone signal gets fuzzy when it is raining outside? Based on the fact that cell phone towers emit radio waves that are attenuated by moisture in the air -- a factor that can be correlated to flood levels -- the researchers have found a way to measure the attenuations and accurately estimate of the size of an impending flood before it strikes.

This was demonstrated on two case-studies of flood in the Judean Desert in Israel where where cell phone towers, and flash floods, are abundant. Using real data measurements collected from cell phone towers, the researchers demonstrated how microwave links used in a cellular network showed a convincing correlation to surface station humidity measurements.

A crucial variable in constructing atmospheric models, this data provided by cell phone towers is the missing link of information weather forecasters need to accurately forecast floods.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but with flood warnings happening on a regular basis in United States especially in the spring, it's still incredibly hard for meteorologists - and people - to gauge the seriousness of flood warnings.

With hundreds of thousands of cell phone towers already in place - even in remote locations in the U.S, - this Tel Aviv University invention can be adopted quickly, since no existing infrastructure needs to be put in place. And cell phone operators are already collecting the data anyway, as Americans ramp up their minutes of call time every month.

PDF link to study: http://www.tau.ac.il/~pinhas/papers/2009/David_et_al_ACP_2009.pdf

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