If your eyes were glued to the minute-by-minute tracking of Hurricane Dorian anytime during it’s 11-day lifespan from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7, it’s worth remembering: Meteorologists couldn’t have done it without weather satellites.
Data from satellites, surface weather stations and radar make it possible for forecasters to use computer simulations, called models, to predict a hurricane’s path. Those models and predictions aren’t perfect, but they’ve become highly accurate and they have helped save lives. They’ve also helped logistics companies better plan their natural-disaster aid and recovery operations.
Dorian isn’t the only example. Satellites tracking water vapor in 2012 helped scientists accurately predict Superstorm Sandy’s turn toward New York and New Jersey, where it killed dozens of people and inflicted billions of dollars in damage. Without satellites, lead time would have been cut drastically and many more people would have likely died. In one test that simulated interference, models kept Sandy out to sea rather than making landfall.
Yet as forecasting technology continues to improve, it faces a major threat that could disrupt the ability to predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, including the most destructive ones like Dorian, Sandy, Micahel, Katrina and many others.
This threat is 5G cellular technology, the uber-fast fifth-generation wireless cellular network that is currently being rolled out. The power levels of 5G could make it difficult for satellites to read natural signals emitted by water vapor.
In May 2019, Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), testified on Capitol Hill that 5G wireless signals could decrease forecasting accuracy by 30%, setting back advances in hurricane tracking by a whole generation.
“If you look back in time to see when our forecast skill was roughly 30% less than it was today, it’s somewhere around 1980,” Jacobs said in his testimony. “This would result in the reduction of hurricane track[ing] forecasts’ lead time by roughly two to three days.” A delay of two to three days could have a catastrophic effect on human life.
These warnings haven’t convinced regulators nor the cell phone industry. In August, Sprint announced that more cities would be added to its 5G rollout plan. AT&T already has 5G available to corporate customers in various cities. Verizon already offers 5G to customers and has plans to expand.
Around the time of the hearings in Washington, D.C., Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency includes NOAA, warned that critical Earth-science data could be lost. Even the Navy expressed concerns. However, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission went ahead with an auction of spectrum in its drive to advance 5G communications.
The U.S. mobile communications industry, which said it’s investing $275 billion in 5G, scoffed at the notion that forecasts could be compromised. Such predictions amount to “an absurd claim with no science behind it,” according to a May 21, 2019 blog post by Brad Gillen, executive vice president of CITA, a wireless industry trade association. CTIA has argued against altering regulations.
“Changing the rules now would dramatically reduce the amount of high-band spectrum available for robust 5G services,” Nick Ludlum, a CITA spokesman, said in a May 31 blog.
Harold Feld, senior vice president at the tech policy group Public Knowledge, said it’s politically difficult to peel back airwaves rights, for instance, by lowering power limits.
“Just after the auction it’s really raw to say, ‘I have bad news for you,’” Feld said. The government may decide to leave power levels unchanged, but might also be poised to halt deployments if the quality of weather forecasts suffers, he said.
Reducing power levels late in the game may breed chaos and trips to court, according to some analysts, who claim that companies could sue because they “bought a Ferrari” but “got a Ford Fiesta.”
Weather industry officials counter that something has to be done immediately.
“There is going to have to be some sort of agreement between the telecommunications and weather enterprises on what is a viable strategy on what protects the interests of atmospheric observing compared to delivering data via 5G,” said Jordan Gerth, an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center.
Gerth explained that 5G poses a specific threat to hurricane forecasting because both happen at the same frequency. When it comes to tracking a hurricane’s intensity and path, scientists use data from other phenomena in the atmosphere, which are gathered by satellites.
“We use data from satellites to assess the state of the atmosphere and use complicated math equations to try to move the atmosphere forward in time,” Gerth explained. “If there are 5G signals operating where we are trying to sense the atmosphere, it makes it more complicated to use the good observations, the non-affected observations, in these complicated numerical equations.”
Gerth also said that if 5G was rolled out over land, researchers would then have to take out the satellite observations for parts of those areas where potential interference occurred. The uncertainty is the extent to which there may be interference. Gerth wants to make sure that the existing weather-sensing bands are protected and that 5G is in areas that are far enough away from where present weather sensors exist.
This does not mean 5G can’t exist in states like Florida, but that the power might have to be turned down. This creates a lesser likelihood that water satellites will sense the 5G network instead of the atmosphere.