Bad Cell Phone Calls Could Actually Be Tracked to Detect Rainfall

Despite the many wonders of our modern cell phones, using them to call a real live human can kind of suck. The sound is fuzzy, the calls drop randomly, and a simple rainstorm can make it all even worse. But there is surprising upside to all this: we can monitor the quality of cell phone calls to track rain and floods in real time—especially in places like West Africa that lack traditional rain gauges.

In a study out of Burkina Faso, a team of researchers looked at the cell quality data around the city of Ouagadougou. Falling raindrops scatter the microwaves transmitting data between cell phone towers, and by looking at how much microwave signals weakened among 10 cell towers, the researchers could calculate how much rain had fallen in the area.

This cell quality data could be a real help for places without rain instruments already installed. In Africa, one of the researchers tells AGU's GeoSpace blog, floods have gotten worse, and real-time rain data from existing cell phone towers could predict and warn against flash floods. They're hoping to test the technology elsewhere in Africa, as well as places in South America and Asia that are prone to flooding.

Telecom companies aren't usually in the business of providing weather data, so coaxing the data out of them could be a challenge, the authors acknowledge. But the infrastructure already exists, and the data is already there. Why not put it to use? [Geophysical Research Letters via GeoSpace]

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