The Loh Down On Science

How your cell phone can measure rainfall

Next use of your cell phone—a rain gauge?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.   

Here’s a slippery secret: Rainfall messes with cell signals. As beams travel between towers, raindrops absorb some of the beams' strength. They’re weaker at the receiving end than when they left home.

Enter Aart Overeem, from Wageningen University. He thought: Why not tap this phenomenon to monitor rain levels?  

He built a model that scours the signal-fluctuation data of cell providers. It deletes extreme swings.  It also corrects for other signal-sappers—everything from water films on towers to large inter-tower distances. The remaining drops in signal intensity reflect the amount of rainfall at a precise moment in time between any given towers. Pretty slick!

He tested it on networks in the Netherlands. And? His rainfall maps matched the trends based on radar and rain gauges. So it works! Best part? It can provide info in real-time. That could greatly improve flood-warning systems.

In short, with hands-free dialing, that little Dutch boy can still plug that leak in the dike!  It’s a win-win.
 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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