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Want a 'Star Trek' tricorder? Your smart phone could be getting close.

With a growing army of citizen scientists, the mobile technologies in a smart phone could help researchers improve weather forecasts or track the impact of a changing climate on vegetation. 

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As OpenSignal took time off to develop an app for that, Dutch meteorologists from Wageningen University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute contacted the company about its cell-coverage app, which could be of value as the researchers developed a method for using signals traveling between cell towers to monitor rainfall intensity and the movement of squalls across the countryside.

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When Mr. Robinson showed the researchers the temperature data, the scientists worked up an approach that tried to infer outside temperature by using the battery temperature. In essence, it's a proof-of-concept calculation. So far, the temperatures are off by about 2.7 degrees F.

The next steps are to find ways to reduce the difference, which means accounting for confounding factors, such as the thermal properties of the various phone cases, or whether the phone is actually exposed to open air or is taking readings while inside a pocket or purse.

The team, which included Robinson, was led by Aart Overeem, a hydrologist at Wageningen University. The results of the team's initial experiments have been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The notion of using cellphones to record temperatures is of intense interest in improving forecasts for urban meteorology, in which heat rising from city surfaces can boost temperatures by several degrees, especially at night. Having temperature readings from thousands of locations would allow energy or emergency managers to build temperature maps that would allow them to anticipate energy demand or more efficiently allocate resources to areas where the heat is greatest and the population most vulnerable, the researchers say.

The biggest boon to local or regional weather forecasts could well come merely from the pressure sensors inside smart phones, says Cliff Mass, a professor of meteorology at the University of Washington in Seattle who is pioneering the incorporation of cellphone air-pressure measurements into forecast models.

"This could really be a major advance for forecasting," he writes in an e-mail.

Cumulonimbus, a Canadian company, has produced a free app that records barometric pressure on Android smart phones that have barometers. The data are shared with scientists.

Dr. Mass and colleague Luke Madaus have incorporated the data from these apps to produce forecasts of highly localized weather events or the routine passage of larger weather fronts in the Seattle area. The forecasts are more accurate than those lacking the additional measurements. The benefit comes from having a far more dense network of barometers than the National Weather Service and its cooperative observers can provide.

"The results look promising," Mass said during a presentation of the concept earlier this month at a conference sponsored by the American Meteorological Society. Given the number of smart phones and tablets in use, he added, that translates into millions, if not tens of millions, of barometers across America with data just waiting to be tapped.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, researchers at the Leiden Observatory and two other national research institutions have developed an app for iPhones that turns the phone into a mini spectrometer to take the measure of tiny particles known as aerosols in the atmosphere. Under the project, known as iSPEX, users slip a small unit over the phone's camera lens to break up the light into its components, as well as measure the light's polarity. The app records and sends the results to the research team heading the project.

Other small add-ons could follow suit, researchers say.

With new opportunities opening as smart phones get smarter and sense their environment in new ways, the potential for helping researchers better understand how that environment works and how it's changing will increase dramatically, Henderson of NEON suggests.

"The real power of these things is that we can look at things, maybe not as in-depth" as scientists studying a single small site for 30 years, "but we can put out numbers" over much wider spaces, over long periods of time, that wouldn't be possible otherwise, she says.


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