Feature Article

February 04, 2013

New Phone App Helps Scientists Better Track Weather Activity at Ground Level

A new and free smartphone app will allow volunteers to provide weather scientists with data about precipitation at ground level. With just a few taps on a screen, such data can be submitted to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).

The project, known as PING (precipitation identification near the ground), seeks to provide data to weather researchers that previous technology collected on a limited basis simply couldn’t accomplish. Radar, which is valuable at identifying storm activity on an atmospheric level, does not provide information about activity at the ground level. Therefore, weather stations at airports provide automated reports that have little or no information about ground precipitation.

Data collection in the past was often a hit-or-miss proposition, where volunteers would go to a website to enter their observations during storm activity. On other occasions, researchers would call anyone located in a storm and ask if they saw rain or hail.

The development of the smartphone app to collect weather data happened during an October teleconference when someone suggested that there ought to be a phone app for collecting ground precipitation data. There happened to be a grad student at the Oklahoma-based laboratory who developed apps on the side, and thus, the PING app was created.

Response to the PING app has been impressive, with 8,900 downloads and 31,000 weather reports submitted – all provided from volunteers at no additional cost. The data collected from the reports will be used in the development of improved technology for radar, forecasting and ground precipitation reporting.

Advances in weather technology have been critical in saving lives. A 1955 tornado in Udall, KS, killed 77 in a town with about 500 people, for instance. The same storm system previously killed 20 people in Blackwell, OK. Clearly, the lack of a systematic reporting system was a major factor in the unfortunate death toll.

Even more, in 2007, an EF-5 tornado struck Greensburg, KS, killing 10 people in a community of about 1,500. In this case, advanced technology gave residents ample warning and saved lives, but this would not have been possible without advances in technology. Apps like the one developed by the NSSL can only help further strengthen these efforts, giving researchers more data points to learn more about the behavior of storm systems. It won't stop an EF-5 tornado from leveling a small town, but it might reduce the death toll from such a storm to zero.

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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