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The business of weather watching gets a phone app

By Steve Olafson

NORMAN, Oklahoma (Reuters) - Weather research is taking a new turn that scientists hope will lead to better forecasts in the not-too-distant future.

The linchpin of the effort is a free smartphone app.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) wants volunteers to download the app to their iPhones or Androids to provide on-the-scene storm reports with a few taps on a screen.

The information is important because the radar pictures seen by the public on television don't necessarily reflect what is happening at ground level, according to Dr. Kimberly L. Elmore, a research scientist leading the project dubbed "PING" for "precipitation identification near the ground."

The explanation is simple: Radar doesn't look at the ground.

The only way for weather researchers to know what's occurring at ground level during a storm is by checking automated weather stations at airports, which are limited when it comes to personal observations or detecting such things as ice pellets, Elmore said.

In past studies, scientists sought volunteers to open a website and punch in their own observations and data. In one case, weather researchers simply made telephone calls to homes and businesses in storm areas to ask if they could see any hail.

Then, last October, a better idea popped up during a teleconference among administrative-level weather officials, Elmore said.

"Someone said off-handedly, `There ought to be a phone app for that.' That planted the seed," he said.

When Elmore learned that the grad student across the hall created apps in his spare time, the PING project researchers realized they had access to thousands of new data providers at virtually no cost.

Since mid-December, there have been about 8,900 downloads of the app and roughly 31,000 reports generated through it, according to Elmore.

He said the public's reaction has been "astonishing" because the PING app has been touted only through social media platforms like Facebook and on the website (http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/) of the severe storms lab.

The lab is an Oklahoma-based research arm of the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In time, the research lab hopes to build a database of tens of thousands of observations from across United States that will be compared with what newly enhanced radars detect.

The information will be used to develop new radar and forecasting technologies and techniques to determine whether precipitation in the form of snow, rain, ice pellets, a mixture or hail is coming down during a storm.

"Once we have a good diagnosis," said Elmore, "we can make a better forecast."

(Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)

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