TORNADO WARNING CONFERENCE LAUNCHED NATION’s
June 24, 2003 ó Weather radar technology and storm warning procedures were still in their infancy when a devastating F5 tornado ripped through the heart of Waco, Texas, killing 114 people and injuring 600 more on May 11, 1953. As a result of that tragic event, Texas A & M College and the U.S. Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the NOAA National Weather Service, quickly convened the first Texas Tornado Warning Conference (June 24, 1953). Organizers believed a coordinated warning plan, better communication and radar stations dedicated to severe weather detection, could have led to earlier warnings. (Click NOAA image for larger view of tornado that struck south of Dimmit, Texas, on June 2, 1995.)
Also represented at the conference were the Texas Departments of Civil Defense and Public Safety; the U.S. Air Force and Navy; University of Texas; Oklahoma A & M; and, private industry, civic leaders and other officials from around the state.
“The goal of that group was to find ways to coordinate their various capabilities and weld them into an efficient tornado warning system, “ said Bill Proenza, director, NOAA National Weather Service Southern Region. “With the Waco Tornado fresh in their minds, they reasoned that a combined effort could have saved a lot of lives in what still remains the deadliest tornado in Texas history—and the tenth deadliest in the nation.”
Some immediate results from the conference were the dispatching of highway patrol cars to investigate suspected storms (a forerunner of the NOAA National Weather Service SKYWARN storm spotter networks), improved communication between the Texas Public Safety Department and the Weather Bureau and programs to provide weather safety education for the public. The most significant achievement of the conference was the creation of the Texas Radar Project which would lead to the nation’s first weather radar network.
At the time, the Weather Bureau owned a number of surplus aircraft radars (APS-2) obtained from the Navy. With S-band (10cm) wavelengths enabling them to avoid attenuation by rain, the APS-2 radars could be modified for severe storm detection, but the modification process would be time consuming and costly and the Weather Bureau lacked the funds.
Project committee members resolved the issue with an innovative proposal involving extensive cooperation among federal, state and local governments and the college. Under the plan, the Weather Bureau provided the radar sets; Texas A & M established a research foundation to handle funds solicited from communities throughout the state; the school’s Department of Electrical Engineering conducted the modifications; and, the Weather Bureau began placing the converted radar sets in key weather offices.
The Texas Radar Project represented an excellent example of cooperation among federal, state and local agencies which contributed directly to public safety. Within two years, the re-designated WSR (Weather Surveillance Radar) stations had been established at 19 Weather Bureau offices serving Texas and portions of Louisiana. This new system was to become the nation’s first closely knit network of weather radars set up exclusively for the purpose of storm detection. In conjunction with the other accomplishments of the 1953 meeting, it set the nation firmly on a path toward improved severe weather warnings and public response.
the Weather Bureau proposed, and Congress approved, major budget
The 1970s would see some of the older, vacuum-tube WSR-57s replaced with newer, transistor-based WSR-74 radars. The WSR-74s were also used to close gaps in the existing network.
The next major leap in weather radar technology came as part of the NOAA National Weather Service modernization program of the 1990s. The agency began to deploy Doppler or Next Generation Radars (NEXRAD), designated WSR-88D, throughout the country. Unlike its predecessors, the new WSR-88D allowed forecasters to determine not only where precipitation was occurring, but also how the air was moving within the clouds.
The heightened sensitivity, improved resolution and scanning capabilities of the Doppler radars—combined with new, sophisticated computer programs—gave forecasters the unprecedented ability to detect tornadic storms and, in some cases, issue warnings before the tornadoes formed. This ability has doubled the average warning lead time (from six to 11 minutes) over the last decade saving many lives in the process. The detection and warning capabilities employed by today’s NOAA National Weather Service can be traced back directly to that first meeting at Texas A & M College on June 24, 1953.
Today, there are 158 operational WSR-88D radars in the Continental United States and overseas, owned by the NOAA National Weather Service, Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense. This network has provided significant improvements in severe weather and flash flood warnings, air traffic safety, military resource protection and the management of water, agricultural and forestry resources.
The next probable step in the evolution of weather radar would be implementation of phased array radar technology commonly used in missile defense systems on U.S. Navy ships. The NOAA Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., is testing this technology for adaptation to weather detection.
The promise of phased array radar includes electronically controlled beams to reduce scan time from the current five or six minutes (WSR-88D) to one minute, which could further increase warning lead times for tornadoes. Weather data from phased array radar systems would also help researchers and forecasters enhance their understanding of storm structure and behavior leading to more accurate computer storm system models.
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