An early-morning tornado struck Lawrence County, Alabama - southwest of Huntsville - on February 6th of this year. Four people were killed by the storm, but a new advanced weather radar was able to pick up on something that may make tornado warnings much more accurate.
The Advanced Radar for Meteorological and Operational Research, or ARMOR, was developed in a collaboration between a Huntsville, Alabama television station and the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH). The radar is located at in the Huntsville International Airport in 2004, and the February 6th tornado is the first time a significant tornado has been close enough to the radar to help in research that will help bring about more precise warnings for tornado.
The radar showed the intense rotation, or mesocyclone, within the thunderstorm. Soon after rotation was indicated, radar reflectivity - the radio waves returned to the radar site after "bouncing" off of objects like rain drops - spiked as debris was thrown nearly 2 miles high into the atmosphere.
As ScienceDaily reports, scientists at UAH's Earth System Science Center are now analyzing the radar data from that tornado. They are trying to determine whether or not the debris signature on the radar is distinct enough to program radar computers to recognize it and indicate the need for a warning. Debris signatures have been noted on similar radar technology at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma.
The radar uses a feature called dual polarization which makes it able to gather information about the size and shape of objects in the air. The radar was first intended to help identify types of precipitation, from hail to snow to rain, but the idea of the radar "seeing" flying debris was not expected.
If research concludes that these debris signatures are something a computer can be programmed to recognize, the National Weather Service may begin upgrading its current NEXRAD radar network so that these debris signatures can become a part of regular warning decisions.