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NOAA Starts Crowdsourcing Weather Data

RP Siegel | Wednesday February 20th, 2013 | 0 Comments

NOAA-Transparent-LogoIt’s not hard to see how the pace of change is accelerating, considering how much of our world now runs on software. One of the main selling points of the software revolution was how quickly it could be developed, how easily it could be changed, and given the fact that we are mostly dealing with creations of the human mind, pretty much anything you can think of can be done.

Those promises have all turned out to be true, probably more true than the people making them ever imagined they could be. Especially with the advent of mobile computing, what was once the narrow domain of scientists and analysts working in faceless buildings, passing decks of keypunched cards through a window to an operator, has now expanded to include, well, everyone, everywhere.

The history of computing in weather prediction is an interesting case in point.

A little over a hundred years ago, a Norwegian physicist named Vilhelm Bjerknes recognized that the weather could be predicted by solving a series of partial differential equations. (If you don’t know what those are you should probably consider yourself lucky.) Bjerknes is considered one of the founders of modern meteorology.

Ten years later, during WWI, a British mathematician named Lewis Fry Richardson, spent three years wrestling with Bjerknes equations using only a slide rule. It took him six weeks to compute the change in pressure at a single point over a six-hour period. The prediction proved to be entirely wrong. Still, Richardson knew the approach could work. He envisioned a computation factory, fixed with 64,000 mathematicians using slide rules to keep track of the weather around the world.

Well, needless to say, things didn’t exactly work out that way, but, in some strange way they sort of did. Consider it an example of “the more things change the more things stay the same.”

Last week, NOAA announced the launch of their new smart phone app called mPING which invites thousands of people throughout  the continental U.S. to send in weather observations so as to compile a more complete picture of the weather. Call it a form of weather crowdsourcing, the acronym stands for “mobile Precipitation Identification Near Ground.”

Why, you might ask, in this era of high technology, do we need such a thing?

As it turns out, weather radar is very good at looking at the sky, but not so good at seeing close to the ground. So, what they are particularly interested in, is how much precipitation is falling in your area.  If you send in a report, NOAA scientists can use that information to fine-tune the way they interpret their radar signals, resulting in more accurate reporting and prediction. Versions of the app are available for both iPhone and Android.

Says principal investigator Kim Elmore, Ph.D., research meteorologist with the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) at the University of Oklahoma, “mPING gives the public a unique opportunity to act as citizen scientists, allowing them to report their observations of precipitation — such as snow, rain, ice pellets, or a mix — in real time. Because this nationwide information will be instantly available from one website, we believe it will be useful for not only researchers, but a variety of groups, including students and teachers, forecasters, TV meteorologists, members of the transportation and aviation industries, city managers and law enforcement.”

During the summer months, citizen reporters can send observations of hail occurrence and hail size.  Both past and real-time data can be viewed live on the project’s website.

Now, if they could only post tomorrow’s data.

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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