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5G networks vs. weather forecasting

Alan Flurry

With the 2019 hurricane season officially beginning June 1, there's another potential obstacle to predicting monster storms: the next generation of cell phones:

On one side of the debate, scientists worry that future 5G networks will hurt satellite data they rely on. On the other side, federal regulators and cell phone companies are racing to deploy 5G technology, which will deliver information up to 100 times faster than today's mobile networks.

"This is a huge concern because we fear that advances in weather forecasting are at risk," Marshall Shepherd, Director of the University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program, said.

Meteorologists are concerned because some of the frequencies the Federal Communications Commission plans to use for 5G are located next to the only frequency where weather satellites can detect water vapor, a critical component for accurate forecasting. They worry the new 5G transmission will interfere with their weather data collection, making it less accurate.

"The data is essential," Shepherd said. "90% of data going into forecast models these days comes from weather satellites. If you remove a good portion of that satellite data, you're crippling our ability to make accurate weather forecasts."

That could mean less time to prepare for major storms. 

"If 5G were in place during Hurricane Sandy, and we had the interference that many of us expect, we might not have seen nine days out that the storm was going to make a left," Shepherd said. "We might have only known three days out that the storm was going to make a hard left into New York and New Jersey.

Impossible to overstate the importance of Dr. Shepherd's expertise on this issue, which crosses weather and climate modeling with technology and societal issues. We appreciate the willingness and ability to share his knowledge as a scientist, scholar and communicator. The confluence of these broad issues means we'll be hearing much more about them in the coming months, and we can thank our public-spirited colleagues for helping to lend clarity to our understanding.

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