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COMMENTARY

Some worry 5G may pose huge problems for weather forecasting

The verdict isn’t in but the stakes are high – very high – for weather forecasting in the U.S. and for many nations who rely on our satellite imagery and data. The deployment of 5G technology has the potential to produce serious interference with the transmission of satellite data.

An article in the Washington Post by Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang details some of the technical issues I’ve been seeing in the literature for quite some time. As most of you know, the wireless industry and the FCC are racing to deploy 5G technology. Besides 5G’s advances in communications capacity, there are very big bucks on the line. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been warning about possible major negative impacts on its mission to provide accurate forecasts that protect lives and property. NOAA’s warnings have not been warmly received by the FCC or the wireless industry. Complexities abound.

Make no mistake: 5G technology is a national priority and could deliver information as much as 100 times faster than current microwave technology. There are obviously good reasons for the FCC to essentially partner with the wireless industry to get this 5G show on the road. But NOAA has abundant evidence this technology could set us back decades by interfering with the transmission of a broad spectrum of satellite transmission bandwidth. Some of the most critical data for all computer models and for near term detection of dangerous and severe storms is in this bandwidth. The low orbiting polar satellites, with their ever-shifting orbital paths, provide higher resolution detail as they circle the globe.

NOAA’s acting director, Neil Jacobs, went so far as to say 5G could set weather forecasting accuracy back 40 years. The trade association of the wireless industry called his claims absurd and scientifically baseless. It noted a microwave sensor for the polar orbiters that would have been seriously impacted ended up being mothballed. But NOAA’s experts and other university scientists countered the trade association’s blog claims of bad science with the fact ignored by the industry: the replacement sensor for the mothballed sensor is very similar.

Jordan Gerth, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin, responded: “These microwave sensors," he wrote in an email, "transmit important water vapor data at a frequency of 23.8 gigahertz, where they are potentially vulnerable to interference." In March, FCC auctioned off spectrum for wireless transmission in the adjacent 24 gigahertz band.

The proximity of the two bands could expose the water vapor data to out-of-band emissions deeming them unreliable. Gerth said, “it is undisputed” that this water vapor data is necessary for weather prediction models “to produce the most accurate forecast.”

Water vapor data isn’t shown as often on TV but it displays where there is abundant water vapor to lend energy and precipitation potential to storms, and where that vapor is being channeled.

This kind of data is pumped into our arsenal of weather models and is a foundation of improved accuracy in the genesis of storms and which areas downwind are most likely to take the worst hits.

The industry trade association claims NOAA’s new sensors are “far less susceptible” to interference than older sensors. NOAA counters with words from Jacobs. From the Washington Post: “Testifying before the House Science Committee on May 16, Jacobs told members of Congress that the interference could result in a 30 percent reduction in forecast accuracy. “If you look back in time to see when our forecast skill was roughly 30 percent less than it was today, it’s somewhere around 1980," he said.

With this reduced forecast skill, the European model would not have predicted 2012′s Superstorm Sandy hitting the Northeast coast several days in advance, Jacobs said. Instead, the model would have steered the storm out to sea. Lead time to prepare for the storm would have been cut short.

Jacobs added that if the data loss from interference reaches even 2 percent, NOAA would likely have to “stop work on its $11 billion polar-orbiting satellite program, important for not just weather forecasting but also for climate monitoring and many other applications.”

The industry strongly disputes NOAA’s testimony. But NASA and the Department of Defense are with NOAA in this dispute. Again from the Post: “[T]he assessments that NASA has done in conjunction with NOAA have determined that ... there is a very high probability that we are going to lose a lot of data,” NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, told the House Science Committee.

In March, the Navy wrote a memo stating the data interference would lead to “a probable degradation of weather and ocean models” resulting in “increased risk of ... degraded battlespace awareness for tactical/operational advantage.”

There is only one portion of the bandwidth that can be used to transmit water vapor imagery, and a number of bipartisan members of Congress are also deeply concerned that 5G be deployed in a fashion to avoid this interference.

A meeting of the world’s microwave spectrum regulators will be held this fall on how and if a compromise solution can be developed. Right now, the sides in this critical dispute are very far apart, and hopes are not high at this point as how to resolve these issues.

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