Severe Weather Awareness: Doppler radar technology continues to evolve

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Kansans know tornado alley and that tornadoes can happen anywhere and anytime. Like Udall in 1955.

“That was probably the loudest sound that I have ever heard,” said Alleen Kistler.

“It was like the breath was sucked out of you for a minute,” said Beth Evans. 

And Greensburg in 2007. 

“This is total devastation. I went through one when I was 14, and this is far worse,” said Christine Kiefer.

From World War II to the present, radar technology has evolved.

“The first doppler radar, we actually got here in the Wichita area, was a WSR-3.  It came in 1957, just after the Udall tornado,” said Chance Hayes, National Weather Service in Wichita. 

As the years have gone by, the Doppler radar has changed from black and white.

“Well folks in Wichita should prepare for heavy rain, hail and strong winds,” Mike Smith, retired KSN Chief Meteorologist.

To vivid color displays.

“The neat thing about it now, is we have dual-pol which we can look at and see the droplets in a storm,” said Ken Cook, National Weather Service in Wichita. 

It also allows meteorologists to see where debris is being picked up by a tornado.

With further advancements, lead warning time continues to improve. It allows you and your family to get to shelter with plenty of notice. The sky is now scanned faster, providing earlier warnings more accurately. 

NOAA’S National Weather Service, the United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration are investing millions of dollars in upgrading each of our nation’s radars. Wichita received the upgrade this year.

The pedestal, one of the most critical components for antenna rotation and positioning, was refurbished and replaced. This will extend the life of the radar into the 2030’s.

“The nice thing about this part of the country is that we have a lot of them around,” said Cook. 

From Wichita, to Topeka, to Goodland and Dodge City, along with neighboring radar sites around Kansas, we’re covered when storms strike.

It will be fascinating to watch how science advances over the next couple of decades, ultimately improving our view of the storms better than ever before.     

Experimental radars are in the works right now that allow faster scanning strategies on cell phone towers. If successful, the radars could give us a better view of the lowest level of the atmosphere where tornadoes form.

Phased-array is another type that scans the sky instantaneously without any moving parts. The cost, though, is 100,000 times more than that of current radars.     

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