Feb. 7, 2013 at 2:47 PM ET
Millions of people carry around smartphones equipped with pressure sensors that help pinpoint their gadget's location. Atmospheric scientists have built an app to collect the pressure data in an effort to improve short-term weather forecasts.
“The big horizon in weather forecasting is high resolution; getting small-scale features like thunderstorms right,” Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, explained to NBC News. “And what cripples us is we don’t have enough data to describe what is happening.”
Gadgets such as the popular Galaxy III smartphone come equipped with pressure sensors that make them weather observatories. Mass and colleagues collaborated with Cumulonimbus, a Canadian app company, to develop PressureNet, which measures atmospheric pressure and sends it to researchers.
"We have a massive pressure database that we can use to improve weather forecasting," Mass said.
Atmospheric pressure is the weight of the air above the surface. Lowering pressure is often a sign that a storm is brewing; rising pressure a sign of sunny skies. Precise tracking of pressure changes, in turn, give weather forecasters the ability to pinpoint when and where a storm will strike.
The data could be particularly useful for places where thunderstorms build up quickly, such as in the Midwest, though Mass noted that forecasting local weather features in most regions would benefit from the stream of pressure data.
The app went into service just before Hurricane Sandy punched the Eastern seaboard in October 2012. “We were able to see the storm come in and see the details of the storm as it went over land,” Mass said.
In the case of Sandy as well as the current snowstorm set to wallop the Northeast today, the pressure data collected by the smartphones is of little use to weather forecasters since they come in over the ocean where there are few people with smartphones.
“It is the stuff that begins over land, because, obviously, that is where the smartphones are,” Mass said.
Currently, he is getting about 4,000 observations per hour, suggesting at least that many people have downloaded the app. He hopes that number grows significantly.
The app is available for Android devices equipped with pressure sensors. Examples include several of Samsung’s Galaxy-branded gadgets, the Nexus 4 smartphone, and Motorola Xoom tablet computers.
“This is just the beginning,” Mass said. “I think this really has legs. It is cutting edge technology.”