A radar upgrade next year will allow meteorologists to better track severe weather — and Wichita's will be the first National Weather Service office to receive it.
The dual polarization radar being developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Norman, Okla., is slated to be installed next fall, NOAA officials said at the quarterly meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Wichita last week.
"What I'm excited about with this is to be able to look at radar and feel with some sense of confidence, 'Hey, I've got some big, large hail with this,' " said Dick Elder, meteorologist-in-charge with the Wichita branch.
The radar will also be able to detect debris being carried by a tornado — thus confirming that a tornado is on the ground. Current Doppler radar can detect rotation in the clouds, but not whether a tornado has touched down.
"That's going to tell me, 'I've got something on the ground,' " Elder said. "That's pretty neat."
The upgraded radars will be installed at the rest of the weather service branches over a two-year period ending in 2012, NOAA officials said.
About a half-dozen dual polarization radars are already in use by television stations and private forecasting companies around the country, said Mike Smith, CEO of the AccuWeather's Weather Data.
The new radar won't eliminate the need for spotters or eyewitnesses, Elder said, but it could be critical if a tornado touches down at night or other times when spotters or law enforcement officers are not in position to see it.
That's vital, forecasters say, so residents can take the warnings seriously and take the necessary precautions.
"I've been wanting to be one of the first places for this because of the attributes it brings to us," Elder said. "I've been pushing for this."
The current Doppler radar, which debuted in 1988, sends out a horizontal beam, said Paul Schlatter of NOAA's Warning Decision Training Branch in Norman. The new radar will send out two: one horizontal and a second at about 45 degrees.
With a better look inside a storm, meteorologists should be able to say with more precision:
• How much snow or ice a winter storm is capable of producing.
• How much rain a strong thunderstorm could produce.
• How much hail is in a thunderstorm, and how big the largest stones are.
The radar will be able to differentiate between weather activity and birds or other "ground clutter" such as buildings.
The improvements should also help meteorologists better understand and report what type and how much wintry precipitation a storm produces, Schlatter said, because they can detect "melting rings" inside a storm — the level at which upper-level ice or snow melts.
That is a significant factor in whether a winter storm drops snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice pellets or simply cold rain.
NOAA officials are careful to caution that the new radar won't be able to predict tornadoes or even detect every tornado. But local meteorologists are optimistic that the new radar will nevertheless improve severe weather forecasting.
"It provides us with more tools to forecast storms," National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Ketcham said. "It's a new technology, very much in its infancy."
Once meteorologists learn how the radar tracks and monitors various types of severe weather, he said, they may detect patterns that help with forecasting. That happened when Doppler debuted 20 years ago, too.
The dual polarization radar will allow forecasters to better recognize and respond to heavy-rain events such as the storm that spawned the deadly flash flood along Jacob Creek in 2003, Elder said.
Radar readings were reporting high rainfall totals, but meteorologists couldn't tell whether it was all rain or if the numbers were "contaminated" by hail — because the ice stones can be misread by current radar as very intense rain.
The flash flood that resulted swept six people to their deaths off the Kansas Turnpike, including five members of the same family.
The new radar will be able to tell rain and hail apart, Elder said, meaning forecasters can more quickly issue flood-related statements and warnings.
Kansas gets most of its heaviest rains at night, Elder said, "when we don't have many people out" monitoring conditions.
Wichita was chosen to be the first site for several reasons, NOAA officials said: It experiences a wide range of weather — including hail and tornadoes; it's not far from the radar development offices in Norman; and there is a radar at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla., that can provide coverage of the region while the Wichita radar is being replaced.
The Wichita radar will be down for two weeks next fall while the first-generation Doppler is removed and the dual-polarization technology is installed and tested, Schlatter said.
That down time is one reason Elder said he was relieved to hear the installation had been pushed back to fall. The radar also comes with "a big learning curve," he said.
"It was supposed to come in June," Elder said. "I was nervous about that.
"I'd much rather take my rookie year through a winter season than my rookie year through a spring and summer."