How smartphones can disrupt climate science

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Federal agencies compete against each other on radio waves used to help predict climate change as the skies are increasingly crowded with noise from billions of smartphones.

On the one hand, NOAA and NASA. They have developed space satellites that passively capture and decode weak energy signals emitted by changes in water vapor, temperatures, rain and wind that determine future weather conditions.

They are backed by meteorological and earth scientists who say the signals are threatened by 5G, the emerging “fifth generation” of wireless communication devices that could create enough electronic noise on radio spectra to reduce noise. forecasting capabilities and distorting computer models needed to predict the progression of climate change.

On the other side are wireless communications companies, smartphone makers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the use of the radio frequency spectrum. The FCC has launched a series of measures to allow companies to “share” spectra used by federal science-related agencies to adapt to the rapid growth of 5G.

The FCC has supported 5G since 2016, when its former chairman, Tom Wheeler, launched a policy he called “Spectrum Frontiers” to spur the growth of 5G. “In a 5G world, the Internet of everything will be fully realized,” he said. “Anything that can be connected will be connected. “

Creating more space for billions of smartphones and other 5G devices is “very important,” he told reporters, “because it means American companies will be the first to walk out the door.”

In 2019, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology raised questions about two studies prepared by NOAA and NASA that predicted that the FCC’s rush to auction off space in radio frequencies would disrupt weather data. necessary for forecasts. Ajit Pai, the then chairman of the FCC, responded that there was no evidence of potential interference and proceeded to an auction.

Committee leaders have requested a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report, released last month, said demand for spectral space is “growing exponentially,” with a potential of 25 billion to 50 billion devices competing for space by 2025.

He said arguments between US agencies regarding weather and climate forecasting issues were “very controversial.” The FCC requested support from Trump’s White House, according to the GAO, and despite the lack of consensus, the weaker rules of the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers program have become the US position.

It was later adopted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), based in Geneva, Switzerland. He writes the global rules.

GAO reported that NOAA and NASA officials fear the pressure for less stringent rules on expanded weather spectrum sharing will continue at the next ITU meeting, which is set for 2023.

“This data is absolutely critical,” said William Mahoney III, associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the heads of the scientific agencies involved in the dispute.

In an interview, he explained that the biggest problem was with a spectrum called 24 gigahertz, which weather satellites use to monitor natural microwave signals produced by water vapor at different levels in the atmosphere. The device they use is a microwave radiometer.

“It’s one of those things that is a gift from nature,” said Mahoney, because the signals from the varying presence of water vapor allow satellites to explore the weather that forms in different layers of the earth. the atmosphere. “A third of current forecasting skills come from this data,” he added, noting that data captured by orbiting satellites can “make the difference between a blue sky day and a tornado day.” .

But the signals emitted by water vapor and other natural weather signatures become weaker in a cacophonous wave of telephone signals. “If you have a large network of cell phone towers transmitting several orders of magnitude of power closer to the ground, some of it will reflect upwards and some parts of the atmosphere will become very noisy,” Mahoney said. .

The stakes of data loss are high.

“This is not an issue where academics or researchers lose access to a dataset, this is not having the information necessary to protect life and property,” Mahoney said. to members of the Chamber’s scientific committee.

Accurate weather data, he added, is needed for agriculture, aviation, water management, forest fire monitoring and power generation management, as well as for US defense agencies.

“Insidious” dysfunctions

A second 16 megahertz spectrum connects the satellites to signals from a variety of automated gauges used by the United States to measure water levels in streams and rivers and wind speed. The satellites collect the signals and send the resulting data to the National Weather Service and private weather companies who are also concerned about increasing “noise levels,” Mahoney said in the interview.

Steven Root, president of the American Weather and Climate Industry Association, wrote to the committee that the interference caused by the group’s sharing “will seriously threaten the distribution of critical weather information by AWCIA members like AccuWeather, UNISYS Weather and WeatherBank, Inc., which the country relies on to respond immediately with the highest quality information to hazardous weather conditions such as tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. “

Another expert witness told the House panel that the most “insidious” impact of increasing noise levels on a weather spectrum would occur if it caused errors or gaps in weather data that are not. not detected. The erroneous data could be included in computer models that scientists use to, among other things, predict future climate behavior.

There is new technology to detect “contaminated” data, explained David Lubar, project manager on spectrum issues at Aerospace Corp., a non-profit agency created by Congress to provide technical advice on space programs. .

Lubar said agencies working on the technology lack funding to develop it and deploy it on new satellites. “I am encouraged that this hearing is being held to consider these issues,” he told the panel.

It’s unclear exactly where the FCC will go next with its Frontier Spectrum policy on 5G. According to the House Science Committee, it has already raised nearly $ 2 billion from 29 successful bidders for space on the 24 gigahertz band.

An FCC spokesperson said the agency “is now laser-focused on building strong relationships with its federal partners and revitalizing the interagency coordination process so that it is once again able to produce results for US consumers and the economy “.

Better coordination between these agencies ultimately means more spectrum and more innovation to help restore America’s wireless leadership, he said. “We look forward to working with other federal agencies to review GAO’s recommendations.”

In a Congress deeply divided on many issues, the House Science Committee appears to have a bipartisan consensus that there is still work to be done between federal agencies before international regulations on radio spectrum are made.

“The [GAO] report makes it clear that the existing process is flawed and highlights a number of instances where coordination has collapsed. We cannot allow this to happen again. Said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the Scientific Committee, said in a statement to E&E News that “improvements to the interagency process for spectrum auctions are still needed.”

She said that “the FCC must – at a minimum – apply global standards to protect both national science and our diplomatic position,” adding that her panel will work to “ensure that we use scientific evidence to protect the services. essential for our nation ”.


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