Going to Extremes

As weather, from droughts to violent storms, becomes more likely, tech companies are developing tools to help us deal with the worst nature has to offer

Nasty weather over Oslo, Norway
Nasty weather over Oslo, Norway Photo courtesy of Flickr user ldrose

Remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Glinda, the good witch, warns the Wicked Witch of the West that someone might drop a house on her, too. For a fleeting instant, the wicked one is all vulnerability, glancing nervously at the sky for signs of another descending domecile.

That’s the image that popped into my brain this weekend when a guy on the radio mentioned the threat of “severe thunderstorms” later in the day. It probably helped that at that moment I was across the street from a house upon which a huge elm had toppled during the freakish derecho a week earlier. Most of the tree had been hauled away, but its giant tangle of roots remained, still attached to the large chunk of sidewalk it had ripped out of the ground, a jarring reminder of how powerful the winds that night had been.

I pay a lot more attention to weather reports these days, wondering if the next “severe” storm will knock out power for days–again–or worse, bring the big maple out back down on to our roof. My guess is that most people are feeling more wary about the weather, with what used to be seen as extreme now seemingly becoming our new normal.

So, if we should expect longer heat waves and droughts, more intense rainfalls and floods and, to put it bluntly, increasingly violent nature, what innovative thinking might help us cope with what’s coming?

Here comes trouble

For starters, the National Weather Service is rolling out new alerts that will pop up on your smart phone. To make sure you get the message, your phone will vibrate and sound a tone.

You don’t need to sign up for them or download an app. Alerts are sent to cell towers which then automatically broadcast them to any cell phones in the area. Doesn’t matter if you have an out-of-state number, either. If you’re driving through Kansas and there’s a twister coming, you’ll get buzzed.

For now, the weather service will send alerts warning people about tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. They won’t flag us about severe thunderstorms, however, because, they say, they happen so often. (Don’t remind me.)

Everyone’s a weatherman

But what if we could start using our smartphones to crowdsource the weather? That’s what Nokia EVP Michael Halbherr proposed during a recent interview. His thinking is that smartphones could be equipped with sensors that register humidity levels and barometric pressure.

I know, that’s nice, but what are you going to do with knowing the barometric pressure, right? Halbherr’s idea is to turn each phone into a mini weather station.

His take: “If millions of phones were transmitting real-time barometric pressure and air moisture readings, tagged with geo-location data, then the art of weather prediction could become much more a science.”

The tricorder lives?

If you like the idea of knowing as much as possible about your immediate surroundings, there’s an invention in the works that may be the closet thing we’ll have to the old Star Trek tricorder. Called the Sensordrone, it’s a device that attaches to your key chain and it’s loaded with sensors.

Through a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, it will be able to tell you not just the temperature, the humidity, and the barometric pressure, but also the quality of the air you’re breathing and level of light to which you’re being exposed. And, if you think you may have had too much to drink, it could serve as a pocket breathalyzer.

You can get instant readings, but the data can also be stored on your phone, so you’ll be able to make graphs of your own personal space. If that sounds like we’re entering into Too Much Information territory, well, maybe so. But the Sensordrone, being marketed as the “sixth sense of your smartphone,” is another idea that’s been a winner on Kickstarter. Its inventors had hoped to raise $25,000, but so far, with almost two weeks to go, they’ve roused up almost $120,000 in pledges.

Doing something about the weather

Here’s more on using technology to track Mother Nature:

  • Where there’s smoke: High-res optical sensors originally designed in Germany to analyze comet emissions have been adapted to create a device called FireWatch. Already in use in Europe, it can detect a plume of smoke up to 20 miles away, usually within 10 minutes, although it takes slightly longer at night.
  • But they will not give interviews: This hurricane season, for the first time, NOAA will use robotic boats to track tropical storms and hurricanes. The drones, a water scooter named Emily and a kind of surfboard called Wave Glider, will be sent out into the middle of the nasty weather where they’ll gather data and take pictures.
  • Something in the air: Intel is developing sensors that can be placed on lampposts and traffic lights and will be able to tell your smartphone how polluted the air is at street level.
  • Sensor and sensibility: Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, are installing 40 sensors around the city of Oakland, creating the first network that will provide real-time, neighborhood-by-neighborhood readings of greenhouse gas levels in an urban area.
  • Taking the long view: Construction is underway in Florida and Massachusetts on the first two of what will be 20 monitoring stations around the U.S. that will track climate change, the spread of invasive species and other environmental trends over the next 30 years.
  • We’ve even got space weather covered: We may soon be able to accurately estimate when radiation from solar storms will hit us. Scientists say neutron sensors at the South Pole will be able to provide the data they need to make solid predictions on the timing and impact of space weather.

Video bonus: I’m betting you’ve probably never seen lightning quite like this. During a thunderstorm last August, it took aim at the CN Tower in Toronto and never let up.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Visualizing a Year of Extreme Weather

Can We Do Something About This Weather?

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