National Severe Storms Laboratory unveils weather radar research prototype
NORMAN — Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory unveiled a new system Thursday that they hope will give forecasters more accurate information more quickly as severe weather approaches.
The Advanced Technology Demonstrator is a $38 million research prototype for a system that, if successful, could be rolled out across the country within the next 20 years.
The system, located just east of Max Westheimer Airport, is the first to combine two weather prediction technologies: phased-array radar, which allows forecasters to look across a wide area more quickly than conventional radar allows, and dual polarization, which gives forecasters information about what type of precipitation is falling within a storm.
Now that the research prototype is up and running, researchers will begin looking at how to use the technology to improve weather forecasts, said Kurt Hondl, program manager at the severe storms lab.
Phased-array radar represents a substantial improvement over the conventional NEXRAD systems that are in place at National Weather Service forecast offices across the country, Hondl said.
Conventional radar systems use a dish to focus radar beams on a single area. Hondl compared those systems to a flashlight: Shine it in a particular area, and you'll see what's there. But when forecasters need to look somewhere else, they must mechanically move the dish to point to that area.
Phased-array radar uses panels of nearly 5,000 radar beams to look for weather events. Forecasters can point those beams anywhere in a 90-degree area without physically moving the panel. That gives them the ability to look in several different areas more quickly than conventional radar would allow, Hondl said.
The research model includes only one radar panel, meaning researchers still must move the panel if they need to look outside the 90-degree area it's positioned to cover. The version of the system that is eventually rolled out to weather service forecast offices may include four panels, which would allow forecasters to look in all directions without moving any parts.
When forecasters get data more quickly, they're able to make forecasts and issue warnings more quickly, Hondl said, giving residents more time to prepare before severe weather events.
The system isn't the severe storms laboratory's first research into phased-array radar. It replaces a previous system, built in 1970, that NOAA borrowed from the U.S. Navy. But because the new system incorporates dual polarization technology, researchers will be able to see how well the two systems work together, Hondl said.
At a ribbon-cutting event Thursday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole called the project "government at its very, very best."
Cole, a Republican from Moore, said research programs like the one unveiled Thursday tend to receive broad support in Congress because they're non-ideological and have the potential to improve — and possibly save — the lives of residents in areas affected by severe weather.
Cole discussed the heartbreak of walking through the destruction left by tornadoes that have swept through Moore over the years and speaking with residents who have lost their homes or loved ones. Improved weather prediction systems could help those people be better prepared the next time a powerful tornado tears through town.
“It's going to happen again," Cole said. "These things aren't one-off.”
The project is a collaborative effort among a number of public agencies, private corporations and academic institutions, including the University of Oklahoma, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory and the Georgia Tech Research Institute.