Have you ever noticed that your local weather forecast seems more and more unpredictable? As it turns out, 5G networks may be to blame. In an era where ‘climate change’ is a pressing concern, federal agencies find themselves entangled in a heated competition for radio waves. These waves play a crucial role in predicting changes in the climate, but with the ever-increasing noise generated by billions of smartphones, the sky is becoming cluttered. This clash between agencies highlights the conflict between the need for accurate weather forecasting and the rapid growth of 5G wireless communication technology. On one side stand NOAA and NASA, armed with their space satellites that capture and decode faint energy signals to determine future weather patterns. On the other side, wireless communication companies, smartphone manufacturers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vie for expanded access to radio frequency spectrum to accommodate the relentless expansion of 5G.
The Battle for Radio Waves
NOAA and NASA have developed space satellites capable of passively capturing and decoding subtle energy signals emitted by changes in water vapor, temperatures, rain, and wind—key indicators for predicting future weather patterns. However, these signals face threats from the emerging 5G technology. Weather and earth scientists argue that the electronic noise generated by 5G devices on radio spectrums can reduce forecasting skills and distort the computer models essential for predicting climate change.
On the opposing side, wireless communication companies, smartphone manufacturers, and the FCC—the regulatory authority for radio frequency spectrum—support the growth of 5G and advocate for sharing spectrums used by federal science-related agencies. The FCC has been endorsing 5G since 2016 when former chairman Tom Wheeler introduced the "Spectrum Frontiers" policy to accelerate its expansion. The FCC argues that the increased capacity for billions of smartphones and 5G devices is crucial for the United States to maintain a competitive edge.
In 2019, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology raised concerns about the potential disruption to weather data caused by the FCC's rush to auction off radio frequency space. Ajit Pai, the chairman of the FCC at the time, dismissed these concerns, claiming there was no evidence of potential interference and proceeded with the auction. Committee leaders demanded an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The subsequent GAO report, released recently, revealed the highly contentious nature of the arguments between U.S. agencies regarding weather and climate forecasting issues. The FCC sought support from the Trump administration, and despite the lack of consensus, the FCC's Spectrum Frontiers program with weaker rules became the U.S. position. These rules were then adopted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which sets global regulations.
NOAA and NASA officials are deeply concerned that the push for less stringent rules on sharing weather-related spectrums will persist. The data collected from these spectrums are vital for predicting weather patterns and climate changes, making this a critical issue for agencies involved.
Implications and High Stakes
William Mahoney III, associate director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, emphasizes the criticality of accurate weather data. A significant issue lies with the 24-gigahertz spectrum, which weather satellites use to monitor natural microwave signals emitted by water vapor in the atmosphere. These signals allow satellites to explore weather formations in different atmospheric layers, contributing to approximately one-third of current forecasting skills. Losing access to this data would affect various sectors such as agriculture, aviation, water management, wildfire monitoring, energy production, and even U.S. defense agencies.
Atmospheric scientists warn that auctioning off additional spectrum bands could diminish their ability to provide timely warnings about extreme weather events like hurricanes and tropical storms, where every minute counts in saving lives. Neil Jacobs, former acting NOAA Administrator, estimates that forecast skill could decline by up to 30 percent, reducing the lead time for hurricane track forecasts by two to three days.
Accurate Data is Critical
The importance of precise and timely weather information cannot be overstated, especially in an era characterized by extreme weather events. A prime example of the critical role accurate forecasts play in saving lives and minimizing damage occurred in 2012 with Hurricane Isaac. The National Hurricane Center successfully provided the state of Louisiana with an accurate prediction of when and where the Category 1 hurricane would make landfall, a remarkable two days before the storm hit.
The initial warning had actually been issued five days in advance, but it misjudged the location of the landfall by approximately 250 miles. Nonetheless, the revised forecast with a two-day lead time allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state authorities to swiftly respond. Evacuation orders were issued, and the public was alerted to the impending danger.
As a result of these proactive measures, the impact of Hurricane Isaac was mitigated to some extent. The storm caused approximately $612 million in damages and tragically claimed at least five lives in Louisiana. However, without the corrected forecast, the consequences would have likely been far more severe, with a higher loss of life.
This example really highlights the vital importance of accurate weather predictions. By providing early warnings and precise information about the path and intensity of storms, forecasters enable emergency management agencies and communities to take necessary precautions, evacuate vulnerable areas, and allocate resources effectively. In the face of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires, every minute counts.
Looming Threats and Expert Concerns
Another spectrum at 16 megahertz connects satellites with signals from automated gauges used to measure water levels and wind speeds in streams and rivers. Sharing this spectrum could jeopardize the distribution of crucial weather information provided by organizations like AccuWeather, UNISYS Weather, and WeatherBank, Inc. Steve Root, president of the American Weather and Climate Industry Association, emphasizes the threats posed by increased noise levels, which could hinder their ability to respond promptly to dangerous weather events.
Experts have highlighted the consequences of rising noise levels on weather spectrums. Errors or gaps in weather data caused by interference may go undetected and propagate into computer models used for predicting future climate behavior. Although technology exists to detect and filter out contaminated data, funding constraints hinder its development and deployment on new satellites.
The path forward for the FCC's Frontier Spectrum policy on 5G remains uncertain. With nearly $2 billion collected from bidders for space on the 24-gigahertz band, the FCC spokesperson emphasizes the need for strong relationships with federal partners and revitalizing the interagency coordination process to benefit American consumers and the economy. However, bipartisan consensus within the House Science Committee acknowledges the flaws in the existing process and the necessity for improved interagency coordination before international regulations on radio spectrums are established.
As Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the Science Committee, states, improvements to the interagency process and globally-set standards are essential to safeguard domestic science and protect critical services. The competing interests of weather forecasting and the rapid expansion of 5G technology underscore the importance of finding a balance that ensures the availability of accurate weather data, which is vital for protecting life, property, and the environment.