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Sarah Jane Keller | Feb 20, 2013 04:00 AM

Some of the earliest weather forecasts began with people scattered across the country who regularly telegraphed observations back to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. as part of a mid-1800s program to solve “the problem of American storms.”

Though scientific tools have advanced far beyond the telegraph, the challenge of forecasting small-scale, fast-acting weather events, like thunderstorms that boil up over the mountains or plains, is still one of the toughest in weather prediction.

LangstormThat’s partly because even computer models need a complete and detailed picture of the atmosphere to be accurate at a fine scale. That requires lots of observations, and in many rural areas and the West, the picture still has big holes in it.

But University of Washington weather researcher and communicator Cliff Mass sees a possible solution that, like the Smithsonian’s telegraph network, relies on people using the communication technologies of the day.

Some smartphones and tablets are now equipped with pressure sensors, and can detect changing atmospheric pressure, a key part of understanding and predicting storms. Mass and others think that a more complete map of the weight of air above us could seriously improve local weather forecasts. “Potentially this could be a game changer for things like thunderstorms, and mountain effects,” Mass says.

Mass recently formed a partnership with the Canadian phone application company Cumulonimbus. Their free app turns phones and tablets with pressure sensors into barometers and Mass is the first scientist with access to their data (there’s a privacy setting where users permit this; the company doesn’t collect personal info).  If you have an Apple gadget, you’ll have to wait for the company to start installing pressure sensors.

Your barometric pressure data could eventually make a difference for local weather forecasting, especially if you live in a place with a sparse or non-existent National Weather Service pressure stations. Mass and his students are currently working on the best way to quality control smartphone data. According to a press release from the University of Washington, Mass hopes to be forecasting with the smartphone data and comparing it to the standard predictions by summer.

Currently, he’s getting about 3,000 to 4,000 observations per hour, but he’d like about 100 times more. As you’ll see from the map of observations below, users in the interior West are clustered around big cities. This is probably related to the number of people who own pressure-sensing smartphones, but I’ve also seen them bandied about in rural Colorado lately.

So Android phone-toting Westerners, consider following in the footsteps of R.C. Johnson, Nevada’s sole contributor to the Smithsonian’s observations in 1985, or Thomas Bullock, who sent observations from Coalville, Utah between 1869 and 1872, or D.J. Pierce, who sent back data from the Wyoming Territory in 1871. Put your local weather on the map. It’s not like you need Morse code to do it.

Locations of pressure data acquired from smartphones during one hour on Feb. 8. There were 5093 observations, and the red bars show how frequently pressure was measured in a certain range. The mean pressure during this sample was about 986 millibars.

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

Image of thunderstorm courtesy of New Mexico Tech.

Smartphone observation map courtesy of Cliff Mass.

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