Eyes on the Skies

No question about it, Toto and Auntie Em could have used a few extra minutes to find Dorothy and get into the storm cellar. When severe weather sweeps through an area, every second of warning time is critical. More time equals more lives saved — the equation is that simple.

A unique partnership has been set up involving the Navy, National Severe Storms Laboratory, the National Weather Service Radar Operations Center, the FAA, Lockheed Martin, and University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology and College of Engineering. Their goal, with $9.1 million in funding from the Office of Naval Research, and the loan of a Navy SPY-1 radar, is to improve upon the existing Doppler radar system, nearly doubling the warning time before a tornado strikes. ONR's Marine Meteorology Program funded early tests of the SPY-1 phased array radar for weather detection aboard actual Navy ships. "The results have proved very promising," said Dr. Ronald Ferek, ONR Program Manager for this effort.

The introduction of Doppler Radar 1974 was a huge milestone in weather forecasting. It allowed meteorologists to see the "big picture" of a storm, and, for the first time, accurately predict where it would go. Now, almost 30 years later, the stage is being set for another revolution in storm monitoring and prediction. By adapting and integrating the Navy's SPY-1 radar technology with existing Doppler technology the National Severe Storms Laboratory and its partners hope to bring about the next evolutionary step in the field of weather forecasting. This next generation of weather radar, called a "phased array" uses multiple radar beams on multiple frequencies providing faster updates of weather features. It will also allow scans of the atmosphere with greater detail and at lower altitudes than is currently possible. All this provides not only a better image of a current storm, but will also collect data on the life cycle of severe weather patterns, giving critical insight and a better understanding of phenomena that generate storms in the hopes of increasing lead time even more in the future.

But what about the hard numbers? Currently the time needed for a Doppler radar scan is six minutes. The new phased array technology drops that to less than one minute. The average lead time before a tornado is only eleven minutes, but that should jump to 22 minutes with the phased array technology. Auntie Em could have used that time.

At present the project is still in its testing phase. Construction has begun on the National Weather Radar Testbed site in Norman, OK, where the first phased array radar will be installed. Carrying a price tag of $25 million, the facility is set to be operational by July 2003. If successful, upgrades to all existing Doppler radar towers could occur within the next 10-15 years.

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