How 5G Is Likely To Put Weather Forecasting At Risk

If the great Samuel Clemens were alive today, he might modify the famous meteorological quip often attributed to him to read, “Everyone complains about weather forecasts, but I can’t for the life of me see why!” In his day, weather forecasting was as much guesswork as anything else, reading the clouds and the winds to see what was likely to happen in the next few hours, and being wrong as often as right. Telegraphy and better instrumentation made forecasting more scientific and improved accuracy steadily over the decades, to the point where we now enjoy 10-day forecasts that are at least good for planning purposes and three-day outlooks that are right about 90% of the time.

What made this increase in accuracy possible is supercomputers running sophisticated weather modeling software. But models are only as good as the raw data that they use as input, and increasingly that data comes from on high. A constellation of satellites with extremely sensitive sensors watches the planet, detecting changes in winds and water vapor in near real-time. But if the people tasked with running these systems are to be believed, the quality of that data faces a mortal threat from an unlikely foe: the rollout of 5G cellular networks.

Where’s the Water?

To understand how a new generation of wireless technology can deleteriously impact weather forecasting, it helps to take a look at exactly what powers the weather, and what these satellites are looking at. Our weather is largely the result of differences between air masses. Pressure, temperature, and moisture, each determined by energy inputs from the Sun, all team up in a complex manner to determine where and when clouds will form and which direction the winds will come from. Remotely sensing these differences is the key to accurately forecasting the weather.

The satellites that watch our weather are largely passive sensor platforms that measure the energy reflected or emitted by objects below them. They gather data on temperature and moisture — pressure is still measured chiefly by surface measurements and by radiosondes — by looking at the planet in different wavelengths. Temperature is measured mainly in the optical wavelengths, both visible and infrared, but water vapor is a bit harder to measure. That’s where microwaves come in, and where weather prediction stands to run afoul of the 5G rollout.

NASA’s Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (ASMU-A1). Source: ESA

Everything on Earth – the plants, the soil, the surface water, and particularly the gases in the atmosphere – both absorb and, to a lesser degree, emit microwave radiation. Measuring those signals from space is the business of satellites carrying microwave radiometers, essentially sensitive radio receivers tuned to microwave frequencies. By looking at the signals received at different wavelengths, and by adding in information about the polarization of the signal, microwave radiometry can tell us what’s going on within a vertical column of the atmosphere.

For water vapor, 23.8-GHz turns out to be very useful, and very much in danger of picking up interference from 5G, which will use frequencies very close to that. Since microwave radiometers are passive receivers, they’ll see pretty much everything that emits microwave signals in that range, like the thousands of cell sites that will be needed to support a full 5G rollout. Losing faint but reliable water vapor signals in a sea of 5G noise is the essential problem facing weather forecasters, and it’s one they’ve faced before.

Real World Consequences

At the 2019 annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, Sidharth Misra, a research engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, presented data showing how commercial enterprises can have unintended consequences on the scientific community. Between 2004 and 2007, satellite-based microwave radiometers detected an increase in noise in a curious arc across the top of the United States. A similar signal was detected by another satellite, with the addition of huge signals being returned from the waters off each coast and the Great Lakes. The signals turned out to be reflections from geosynchronous direct TV satellites, bouncing off the surface and swamping the water vapor signals the weather satellites were trying to measure.

Reflections from DTV satellites can effectively blind microwave radiometers. Source: AMS meeting panel discussion, “The Wizard Behind the Curtain?—The Important, Diverse, and Often Hidden Role of Spectrum Allocation for Current and Future Environmental Satellites and Water, Weather, and Climate”

But surely the scientists are overreacting, right? Can losing one piece of data from as complex a puzzle as weather prediction really have that much of an impact? Probably yes. The water vapor data returned by microwave radiometers like the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit (AMSU) aboard a number of weather satellites is estimated to reduce the error of weather forecasts by 17%, the largest contributor by far among a group of dozens of other modalities.

The loss of microwave water vapor data could have catastrophic real-world consequences. In late October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy barreled up the East coast of the United States, forecasts showed that the storm would take a late turn to the northwest and make landfall in New Jersey. An analysis of the forecast if the microwave radiometer data had not been available showed the storm continuing in a wide arc and coming ashore in the Gulf of Maine. The availability of ASMU data five days in advance of the storm’s landfall bought civil authorities the time needed to prepare, and probably reduced the casualties caused by the “Storm of the Century”, still the deadliest storm of the 2012 season.

Superstorm Sandy would have been predicted to track into the Gulf of Maine (red) without microwave water vapor data. It actually landed in New Jersey, as predicted five days out with the satellite data (black).

Auction Time

So exactly where are we with this process? The FCC auction of licenses for the Upper Microwave Flexible Use Service (UMFUS), which offers almost 3000 licenses in the 24-GHz band, began on March 14, 2019, despite a letter from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross requesting that it be delayed. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rejected the request, stating that there was an “absence of any technical basis for the objection.”

Will the 5G rollout negatively impact weather forecasts? It’s not clear. Licensees are required to limit out-of-band emissions, but with so many 5G sites needed to cover the intended service areas, and with the critical 23.8-GHz water vapor frequency so close to the UMFUS band, there’s not much room for error. And once the 5G cat is out of the bag, it’ll be difficult to protect that crucial slice of the microwave spectrum.

Whatever happens, it doesn’t look good for weather forecasting. The UMFUS auction proceeds apace, and has raised almost $2 billion so far. Companies willing to spend that much on spectrum will certainly do whatever it takes to realize their investment, and in the end, not only will science likely suffer, but lives may be put at risk for the sake of 5G as our toolset for predicting dangerous weather faces this new data-gathering challenge.

90 thoughts on “How 5G Is Likely To Put Weather Forecasting At Risk

      1. I realize that this comment is tongue-in-cheek, but no, it won’t act as a repeater. It will absorb and re-emit microwaves, but that re-emission period has a half life. In other words, it will not be coherent, instead diffusing the signal over a period of time.

        1. Considering that our bodies are 70-90% water, depending on the age, our bodies will constantly absorb these waves, and re-emit them. It is natural to ask, as we will be defusing the signal, what happens to our DNA ( or on the dark side how fast we will mutate ) as we start slowly to absorb that energy.

          1. nothing actually – or more accurately: far less than the heat energy generated by your own body. MM-Wave energy is somewhat absorbed by our bodies, but the amount of thermal heating induced is far less than the variance from cell to cell in our own body. Meaning, random thermal variation in our own body is an order of magnitude greater than what mm-wave energy causes. So for those believing otherwise, they must also accent that their body heat does far, far more damage than mm-wave radiation. (peer reviewed studies by legit researchers has long been published on this topic, and reaffirmed. No wackadoo individuals with a college degree but no actual research experience can state otherwise with certitude (unless born of ignorance)) ps – a PhD alone is not sufficient to conduct good studies.

          2. I don’t get the fixation on “ionising threshold” from a radiation perspective and not a solution or electrolytic perspective considering coupling and parasitic effects that effect electrophysiology. How do you think nerve transmission works… like Na, K, Ca and Acetylcholine are voodoo or something and have nothing to do with signaling?

            Same goes with the fixation on thermal effects. Obviously mechanical effects can do things too the body adversely… though more like thermal effects theories from wireless systems.

            Doesn’t anyone understand transmission, absorption, reflection windows of tissues also as well as diffusion and refraction to effect electrophysiological signals?

    1. exactly what i was thinking, although potential bandwidth is high, signal is blocked by practically everything, cell sites would need to be more frequent as wifi routers. perhaps it would allow water to reflect more energy (emitted by the 5g cells) and result in better forcast (only in dense 5g areas) … back to uhf.

    2. “Does this also mean that 5G will suck, when it’s raining?”

      Yes. It is attenuated by rain. You get -1 to -3 dB per kilometer at the 24 GHz band depending on the amount of rain, up to -20 dB in heavy rain or thick fog.

    3. There is a paper from Mathew K. Samimi and Theodore S. Rappaport with a section on their measurements of 28 GHz propagation in Manhattan and Brooklyn – . It’s surprisingly good outdoors in urban environments – 300 meters easily. A different paper, which I can’t find at the moment, did some measurements and found that you can transmit in a commercial steel-stud-and-drywall office and still have usable signal two offices over.

      The plan for 27-28 GHz and 5G is really indoor femtocells for homes and offices along with super-tight spot beams for stadium-like environments. Spots on the order of ~10 meters across with sharp falloffs. The rest of “5G” will occupy various slots in 1-6 GHz. 5G should be able to delete a 2GB/month data plan in 30 seconds. :-)

      At one point in my career, many statues of limitations ago, I might have operated a 24 GHz radar in a vertical-looking mode to determine precip type as a function of altitude. I might have gotten a very polite phone call from a very polite person at NASA very politely asking me to not run it when their microwave limb sounder was in view, and I might have politely complied more or less on the spot. We talked for a while – side looking was no problem but vertical looking meant very low attenuation and it screwed with the measurements. I don’t think the MLS was a terribly narrow bandwidth device from the discussion, but I may well have misunderstood. I was only running a few mW, but I had, I can’t remember, 20 dB-ish of gain? We only wanted measurements to about 3 KM up.

  1. “Will the 5G rollout negatively impact weather forecasts? It’s not clear. Licensees are required to limit out-of-band emissions, but with so many 5G sites needed to cover the intended service areas, and with the critical 23.8-GHz water vapor frequency so close to the UMFUS band, there’s not much room for error.”

    Seems to me like they should go ahead with the auction, but strongly enforce the band with no excuses.

    If you are outside your allocation, that’s a violation. If you feel like you need some safety margin to keep your equipment inside its allocation, that comes out of your allocation, not your neighbor’s.

    1. Even if the transmissions are held to a high degree of precision, there will always be an increase in the noise floor across the entire band and into adjacent bands.

  2. The AMSU has one band at 23.8 GHz with a .27 GHz total bandwidth, and 14 bands that are higher in frequency. Listed as a known limitation is measuring water vapor over the sea. Perhaps you could publish the carrier band specs at 24.25 GHz for 5G with the signal bandwidths and filter rolloff characteristics? That way we could all see the data. You obviously think delaying the 5G roll out would be no big deal?

    1. I am unable to understand why we need ever faster connection speeds for mobile devices. 4G is already comparable to a good home broadband connection; why do we need such speed for mindless triviality of facebook, twitter, etc?

      1. Hard to know how many good ideas have been thawrted by lack of high throughout low latency wireless reliable communication without you having to stay put.

        The other part of it is there is no reason this couldn’t replace wired home broadband or why we should wait for the problem to developer before we mitigate it

        1. Why not implement more fiber or copper?

          Hardline systems will last longer, if designed adequately, than the wireless systems that will become obsolete since 500G is a thing too. More wasted resources with all the wireless that is easier to implement on a consumer level with local household consent instead of beam forming everywhere non-consentually.

  3. That presumably doesn’t matter, the current system is passive, and we’re not blasting the water in the atmosphere with 23.8GHz from the ground. They were even swamped by reflections from objects in GEO.

    1. When the satellites can detect reflected sat TV a very low power signal that to actually use require a high gain dish antenna vs cells that are short range in use but use tiny omni-directional (you don’t want to point your phone at the towers do you?) and therefore low gain antenna so have to be relatively strong transmissions. It is most definitely powerful enough to cause interference.

      That tv sat signal has already covered something like 70000KM from space and back again.. so with the inverse cube of that radius means the signal is already weaker by hideous amounts than it was at transmission and it wasn’t a powerful signal to start with.

      1. The mobiles and tower transmitters are asymmetrical as they have different constraints. The mobile phone is limited in power and size – use omidirectional antenna(e) while the towers uses higher power, directional antenna (for serving multiple cell sectors from one tower) and high gain amplifiers. 5G would be using smaller cell sites for pushing higher data rates, so RF rages are limited.

        You’ll have lots of lower power mobiles with RF coming out in different direction and high power directional antenna pointing mostly downwards.

        1. True, neither node is actually perfectly omni-directional but the point still stands – and you are still talking significant signal strength just from the phones and towers to make it work over any useful range. Just because I point my torch down doesn’t mean the light wont eventually go up.
          And when a low power signal that originated in space so has covered huge distances is enough to be very detectable on the weather satellites after it has reflected there can be no doubt 5g transmissions can do the same.

        1. I am interested in the long term effects of radio waves such as Wifi, 4G, 5G, GSM, etc on human brain activity.

          If it is like trying to break a chain with a bb, after about 1000 shots, the chain will probably break.

          What studies have been done on the long term effects of blasting 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals (home routers), and now 24GHz (femtocell) in our bedrooms throughout our house?

          I’ve been saying for years that the increased wireless energies around developing human brains are why our newer generations are a little less… sane?

          It is easy to say “this has no proven harm on humans” but how do you actually study this? You don’t. You make scientific assumptions until a mass event proves you wrong. No one sat in a room blasted by 24GHz at 20dB for 8 hours a day 24/7 since birth with everything documented. And even if they did, what would you compare it to? Everyone is different.

      1. No, in regards to the typical ionizing not in a liquid or solid. I guess at high enough energy… it’s obvious non-ionizing radiation can emit ionizing radiation… i.e. like the breakdown voltage to cause the spark basically.

        Ion’s also ionizing in a nerve or certain amino acids metabolisms is obvious also.

        I think a better analogy is more like the sympathetic resonance and entrainment effects that disrupt naturally occurring electrophysiological processes like bond frequencies.

        So no chain with a bb… more like a membrane potential or pulse current with a battery. Doesn’t happen without the right change to the DC circuitry… say like with an RF cauterize tool. The 18650 battery DC output alone won’t do much… with some circuitry however to add the AC/digital characteristics that do much… ablates tissue like you would have never imagined a ~$10 cheap Chinese tool can.

  4. Then a few years from now we will hear how newer programs use the data of processing all the 5G phones to get even better and more precised data using those same signals.

    1. That is possible.

      They might even get some contrast between 5G covered areas and non 5G covered areas.

      Even at 5G, there should be 2 modes. One at 4G frequency range and the other at above mentioned higher frequency range.

      I doubt our entire country will be covered with the latter any time soon.

  5. You know the things the satellites are trying to measure are subject to the exact same problems, right? If anything, they’re weaker than the 5G transmissions. The 1km range is the range at which the signal could be received and made useful by a cell phone. It doesn’t apply to an incredibly sensitive receiver on a satellite. While it’s appreciated that the antenna won’t be pointed at the sky, the transmissions bounce.

  6. ” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rejected the request, stating that there was an “absence of any technical basis for the objection.””

    Seems to be a common theme with this administration. Unless it burns down Ajit Pai’s house there’s no proof of any claim.

  7. Except that many of the current generation and next generation of passive microwave satellites are not geostationary, they’re in low earth orbit. Their designed to be highly sensitive to small emissions, so any bleed-over from cell towers will completely swamp the signals.

  8. Hey guys, I really don’t think it matters whether a network uses a high or low gain it what direction antennas are facing. How much gain do you think water vapor is broadcasting? Infinitesimal in comparison. There is something called a signal to noise ratio. I promise you, the feeble emissions from water vapor will be drowned out if strict bandwidth rules aren’t adhered to.
    I used to do spectroscopy in the lab. I promise you if there is bleed into frequencies in question, the effect will be trying to see a candle flame in front of a spotlight.

    1. I have a microphone that can listen to a mouse from a mile away. You stand next to the house and start whispering – even pointing the opposite direction – and I’m not going to hear the mouse over you. That’s what these satellites do. They are already listening for very faint sources bouncing off of water vapor, even the bounces of a signal pointed away are going to be very loud to the detector

    2. Great observation. I am thinking the same. I haven’t found the intensity of the emission range of the ambient natural conditions as well as the 5G minimum and max emission compared to the sensitivity of the detectors yet since haven’t looked. Being space based… my guess is a single satellite is highly sensitive with an even higher classified sensitivity not disclosed. I may be wrong… though with BRAC and integration of Fusion and other Joint Operations paradigms of thinking… seems more bang for the buck.

  9. How does one purchase these licenses? Seems like a good investment. Weather forecasters will adapt technology to measure around the 5g spectrum thus allowing more 5g providers to improve speed and power.

  10. As long as the 5G emission strength is relatively predictable can’t they just adjust for it if they increase the dynamic range of the instruments? For a fixed ground emission pattern I don’t see how you couldn’t still calculate the absorbance in the atmosphere. It just gets a little harder, gives PhD’s something to do.

  11. if it is speeds they want why not just install more 4g antennas and build shotgunning devices that can merge multiple 4g signals into 1 for faster speeds ( remember in the 90s for a small time there was a shotgun modem that was 2 56k dialups in the same device and could let you get isdn speeds over the phone line)

  12. I’m skeptical of the science as presented. Cell phone towers don’t point up. Let’s see some sources on water emitting microwaves. How does the satellite detect water over the ocean? A little fleshing-out would not go amiss.

    1. Check out my comments and references above. There are spectral windows that say if the resolution is higher… so more frequency divisions basically… more spectral information and windows appear related to absorption, transmission and reflection (there’s also diffusion and refraction going on too).

      Now, yeah… I’m with you… the data isn’t as publicly easily accessible, if accessible, and we need to demand more information they have period. They’re our public servants.

      The cell towers still have a beam forming that is radiating and will cause more static, noise, interference and really jamming of the more beneficial to humanity weather data. Especially since the weather data systems are passive (needs only a detector/receiver) and we need more passive systems operations versus active systems operations (needs an emitter/transmitter to measure change in path characteristics).

      Check out the last link in my last comment above… since the earth is round there is a stereoscopic and better 3D capability with these systems to image. I also think some of the really high resolution systems zooming capabilities can measure to create focus point information like a coordinate measure system does in the optical range… though in microwave or whatever frequency range.

      The way old satellites the CIA/USAF used/use used to have calibration targets on the ground to calibrate with.

  13. “we now enjoy 10-day forecasts that are at least good for planning purposes and three-day outlooks that are right about 90% of the time” – dunno what country you live in, but in Western Europe, we’re glad if the one-day forecast is correct :)

    1. I have mentioned “persistence” in HaD comments before.
      “Persistence” iis the likelihood that tomorrows weather will be like today’s, or that Summer will be warmer than Spring.
      Any weather forecaster worth his/her/its(computer) salt will be better than Persistence.
      A percentage I heard years ago (and latched onto) is persistence is around 70%, so just flipping a coin (50%) is worse than Persistence.

    2. Yeah same. 90% three day? Pfft certainly not here in Vancouver, Canada. Pretty much the only weather forecast I trust is the 24 hour one and even that is often wrong in timing of rain.

  14. Without dismissing the importance of supercomputers in this field, an extensive and thorough data acquisition infrastructure has probably contributed far more to improving weather forecasts.

  15. 2x GHz mm-wave is not really fit for tower type installation as – contrary to sub-6GHz – it requires line of sight. and while there’s better beamforming available – compared to sub-6 – tracking a mobile device is right now extremely hard. not to mention that your head could be a quite big attenuation once you turn away from the tower. mmwave usually deployed street level or rooftop level in the outdoors, for fixed wireless access. and while 5GNR is cool, the spectrum here is limited.
    anyways, this is not the regular wide beamwidth transmission – you got to focus all the RF power to where the receivers are and all over the place. it depends on the free space path loss whether it can seriously screw up readings – but i guess with some adaptation the produced data can be used if the potential noise sources are documented somehow.

  16. The locations of the 5G towers will be known. The total power emitted/received is known in real time. Why not subtract the known signal from the satellite measurements. Hell a black hole was imaged in a galaxy 54 million light years away.

    1. Four — Interesting suggestion. This is how the TV networks draw lines all over the football fields. They take a static picture of the field before the game then draw graphics over that then allow any moving objects (players & balls) to be drawn over-top of the field and graphics.

    2. I’d you’re transmitting information, and not a simple repeating pattern, how much use will that actually have? There’s also significantly more signal from the towers than would come from the water.

      Think about how much energy you normally see coming out of water vapor.

      Do you think you could see that from 100km, over a something like a flashlight?

  17. 5g is going to be deployed without any significant study on long-term exporsure of the type of high-frequency and power required to perform as advertised. Straight to the human trials! Don’t worry, probably only kills the old and weak.

      1. The higher the G, the bigger the effect. Very few people connect the changes happening in our health and behavior with the non-native EMF starting with the blue light, even after the 2017 Nobel prize. We have T2 diabetes and thyroid disease in much younger population than before, we see a suicide epidemics and unexplained deaths, e.g. as a result of a vaccination. As water in our bodies gets microwaved, we become dehydrated. Water is altered and is no longer an effective energy conductor the way Jerald Pollack described (google EZ water). At last, here is the government study:
        The fact that people don’t get killed immediately doesn’t mean they are not affected. Effectively, our tome speeds up and we age faster.

        1. Also young kids and adolescent youths with unmyelinated brain suffer the most as this EMF prevents normal myelination and leaves brain susceptible to disease and influence unlike in adults whose brain myelinated without the effects of 3 to 5 G. If you have a child playing with an iPhone or sleeping with wifi turned on, it is child abuse.

        2. oh my gosh – did you read what is contained in your link? I have, ““The exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone,” said John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist.”
          He gave a litany of reasons – rats exposure started in the womb, and mice 5-6 weeks old. And lasted for about 2 years (lifetime exposure) . Whole body exposure, not just localized tissues like from a cell phone. For 2G and 3G networks.
          1. He said the study cannot be compared directly to humans.
          2. The study isn’t pertinent to the new 5G network technology.
          Thus, not pertinent to this discussion of mm-wave radiation in a 5G network, at the levels experienced, at typical usage.

  18. What I see is this. It does not go through walls or doors or rain etc. So then EVERYONE will need a device in their office or home or whatever as a repeated that is always “listening” in one form or another. I am surprised no one here noticed that little thing. Is anyone here even slightly aware of siri and alexa etc listening in on you? This just shows me to what lengths they will go to get into our homes and every room of our homes [remember it won’t go through walls] and say it is for our own good so we can stay connected.
    I am not sure about you, but this is BS to me. Just one more lessening of our privacy in my opinion. Between this and some new laws changed in Canada and Agenda 21 the future looks pretty certain.
    1984 anyone?

  19. I am so NOT looking forward to 5G. It looks like it is going to be a disaster for rural areas and if manufacturers start focusing on it the more viable long range standards will get the Red-Headed-Stepchild treatment making service even worse for those outside metro areas. This will just open the door wide open to Skynet…err…Starlink when it comes online. Its a very stupid move for cell phone companies. If Starlink gets established as the dominant option out in the country, they can etch away at the city market one cell phone tower at a time as the more remote towers become even less profitable. Then we’ll be down to just one carrier who can milk us all for as much as the market can carry making Elon Musk the world’s first trillionaire. (Then he’ll have enough money for that Mars colony he keeps saying he wants. I guess it isn’t entirely distopian. :-) )

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