There is little warning when a flash flood occurs. At the beginning of this year, a flash flood that hit Ellicott City, MD, destroyed the main street, thrashed buildings, swept away parked cars, and killing one man.
Image credit: Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv University research proposes that weather patterns resulting in flash floods may, in the future, be tracked and predicted by smartphones.
The sensors in our smartphones are constantly monitoring our environment, including gravity, the earth's magnetic field, atmospheric pressure, light levels, humidity, temperatures, sound levels and more. Vital atmospheric data exists today on some 3 to 4 billion smartphones worldwide. This data can improve our ability to accurately forecast the weather and other natural disasters that are taking so many lives every year.
Prof. Colin Price of TAU's Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
Prof. Price partnered with TAU master's student Ron Maor and TAU doctoral student Hofit Shachaf for the research, which was reported in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics.
Smartphones measure fresh data, such as temperatures, atmospheric pressure, and humidity, to evaluate atmospheric conditions. To get an idea of how the smartphone sensors function, the scientists positioned four smartphones around TAU's expansive campus under controlled conditions and examined the data to sense phenomena such as "atmospheric tides," which are like ocean tides. They also examined data from a UK-based app called WeatherSignal.
"By 2020, there will be more than six billion smartphones in the world," Prof. Price said. "Compare this with the paltry 10,000 official weather stations that exist today. The amount of information we could be using to predict weather patterns, especially those that offer little to no warning, is staggering.
"In Africa, for example, there are millions of phones but only very basic meteorological infrastructures. Analyzing data from or 10 phones may be of little use, but analyzing data on millions of phones would be a game changer. Smartphones are getting cheaper, with better quality and more availability to people around the world."
The same smartphones may be employed to provide real-time weather alerts via a feedback loop, Prof. Price said. The public can add atmospheric data to the "cloud" via a smartphone application. This data would then be processed into instantaneous forecasts and reverted to the users with a forecast or a warning to those in hazardous zones.
The research may result in improved monitoring and predictions of difficult-to-predict flash floods.
"We're observing a global increase in intense rainfall events and downpours, and some of these cause flash floods," Prof. Price said. " The frequency of these intense floods is increasing. We can't prevent these storms from happening, but soon we may be able to use the public's smartphone data to generate better forecasts and give these forecasts back to the public in real time via their phones."