The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Oct 2010

Does Weather Affect Cell Phone or GPS Reception

A mean storm can definitely cause dropped calls, but not because the weather is interfering with the microwave frequencies your mobile phone uses (1–3 GHz). Rather, it's that cell towers transmit to each other and to base antennas at higher radio frequencies that occasionally straddle the resonant frequency of water vapor, causing wireless signals to be blocked and absorbed by passing storms. These "backhaul" frequencies can be so sensitive to humidity that researchers in Israel are deploying tower-mounted sensors that can determine which rainstorms are capable of causing flash floods. With GPS devices, it's a different story. They contact satellites using lower-frequency radio waves that aren't affected by rain, clouds, glass, or clothing but can be blocked by dense foliage and buildings that obscure the sky. So trust your GPS during a storm, but keep the unit itself dry: Even a thin coating of water on the antenna's exterior housing can scramble a satellite signal.

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How Long after a Summer Rainstorm Do 'Skeeters Go Nuts?

Mosquitoes need undisturbed, standing water to lay their eggs in; after 24 to 48 hours, the eggs hatch into larvae, and four to ten days later a New Jersey bomber takes flight. So if you have a torrential downpour, count ahead seven to ten days; that'll be a good time to stay behind a screen door. Temperatures over 80 degrees also increase mosquito mojo, while readings below 50 degrees shut them down. They prefer shade to direct sun, calm conditions to strong winds. If all else fails, you can try to outrun them; their top speed is 1.5 miles per hour, half the average human's walking speed.

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What's Doppler Radar

Deployed in the early 1990s, the network of Doppler radars run by the National Weather Service now totals 150-plus stations across the country that track storms and serve as the source of many of the radar maps on TV and the Internet. Underlying all this is the Doppler effect, which dictates that when radar energy bounces off a thundercloud and returns, its frequency changes just enough for a computer to determine not only a storm's location (which any radar can do) but also its velocity and intensity. (It's like how your ears process frequency shifts when an ambulance races by.) Then there's Super Doppler, which is ... Dopp­ler with better marketing. Still, truly super Dopp­lers are coming soon, says Doug Forsyth, chief of radar research and development at the NOAA National Severe Storms Lab, in Norman, Oklahoma: "We'll start deploying dual-polarization upgrades—which can distinguish better between rain and hail—at the end of this year."

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How to: Understand Your Watch’s Weather Warnings

Your fancy mountaineering watch fixes your elevation and predicts the weather by measuring barometric pressure, or the weight of the column of air above you. The higher you go, the less air there is, the lower the pressure. Likewise, an approaching storm can cause barometric pressure to free-fall hours before any clouds show up. When pressure drops for an extended period and elevation isn't the cause, a watch's storm alarm beeps, or an image of menacing clouds appears. Suunto's new watches give a warning when pressure declines continuously for three hours. But always double-check any storm alarms by scanning the sky. If pressure drops are accompanied by southerly winds, warmer air, and heavier cloud cover, expect rain within 12 hours. If those atmospheric clues aren't evident, your watch's pressure sensor could be acting up. Recalibrate it by inputting the known elevation of a city, airport, or trailhead at your current location.

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