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Opportunistic remote sensing of rainfall using microwave links from cellular communication networks

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Microwave backhaul links from cellular communication networks provide a valuable “opportunistic” source of high‐resolution space–time rainfall information, complementing traditional in situ measurement devices (rain gauges, disdrometers) and remote sensors (weather radars, satellites). Over the past decade, a growing community of researchers has, in close collaboration with cellular communication companies, developed retrieval algorithms to convert the raw microwave link signals, stored operationally by their network management systems, to hydrometeorologically useful rainfall estimates. Operational meteorological and hydrological services as well as private consulting firms are showing an increased interest in using this complementary source of rainfall information to improve the products and services they provide to end users from different sectors, from water management and weather prediction to agriculture and traffic control. The greatest potential of these opportunistic environmental sensors lies in those geographical areas over the land surface of the Earth where the densities of traditional rainfall measurement devices are low: mountainous and urban areas and the developing world. This article provides a nonexpert summary of the history, theory, challenges, and opportunities toward continental‐scale rainfall monitoring using microwave links from cellular communication networks. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Methods Science of Water > Hydrological Processes
Left: Example of a cellular communication tower. Electromagnetic signals transmitted from the round (directional) antenna on one tower to another are attenuated by rainfall. The time‐dependent magnitude of this attenuation can be estimated and converted into path‐average rain rates. Right: Map of the Netherlands with locations of approximately 3,100 link paths from the cellular communication (backhaul) network of one of the three providers. The colors denote the availability of link data used to estimate rainfall, that is, the fraction of the time received signal level data from a given microwave link are stored by the network management system (Overeem, Leijnse, & Uijlenhoet, )
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Maps of monthly rainfall depths for the year 2012 for (left) interpolated microwave link data and (right) gauge‐adjusted radar data (Reprinted with permission from Overeem et al., . Copyright 2016 Wiley)
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Maps of 15‐min rainfall depths from interpolated microwave link data (left) and gauge‐adjusted radar data (right) for August 31, 2012, 1930–1945 hours UTC (From the data presented by Overeem et al., .)
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World map showing the countries for which researchers managed to obtain CML data from telecommunication companies (gray‐shaded areas) (Reprinted with permission from Van het Schip et al., . Copyright 2017 Taylor & Francis Online)
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Values of coefficients in the relationship to convert specific attenuation to rainfall intensity for frequencies ranging from 6 to 50 GHz. The gray‐shaded area denotes the 37.0–40.0 GHz range. Note the logarithmic vertical scale in the left figure. Here values have been computed from one data set of measured drop size distributions (solid lines). The values recommended by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU‐R, ), meant for computing specific attenuations for given rain rates and for worldwide application, are also plotted (dashed and dotted lines) (Reprinted with permission from Overeem, Leijnse, & Uijlenhoet, . Copyright 2016 Wiley)
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World map with 2013 cellular telephone coverage from the GSM association (GSMA) (Reprinted with permission from GSMA and Collins Bartholomew [Overeem et al., ]. Copyright 2016 Wiley)
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