OKLAHOMA CITY — In 2011, tornadoes killed 550 people in the United States.
In Branson, Missouri in February, a new technology was credited with giving residents twice the normal amount of warning time before a tornado hit keeping this year’s total from growing.
Now that technology is coming to cover the state of Oklahoma.
One already sits near Jet in Northern Oklahoma.
It’s a big white ball on a tower that looks a bit like a giant golf ball and a lot like any other radar in the state.
But inside the white ball in Northern Oklahoma are new changes that could help forecasters know exactly what’s going on the next time a tornado strikes.
Rick Smith is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman.
He said, “It’s the biggest change we’ve seen to the Doppler radar network since it was implemented back in the 1990s.”
Smith said dual polarization radar started being deployed in the U.S. just last year.
It helps give more detail about the size, shape and variety of particles in the air.
Smith said, “We’re essentially going from one dimensional picture to a two dimensional picture of what’s happening inside the storm.”
Traditional radar sends out pulses of energy that are oriented horizontally.
Dual polarization radar sends out pulses that are vertical as well.
The resulting cross-section allows forecasters to be able to tell the difference between snow, sleet, rain and hail.
During storm season it can pinpoint debris kicked up by a tornado.
Smith said, “A lot of times in Oklahoma we already know the tornado is there by that point because of all the great media coverage and all the spotters we have and the information we’re getting.”
But when a tornado is wrapped in rain or disguised by darkness, the debris from a twister can tell the story for us.
Smith said, “Maybe we’ve issued a warning based on radar but that debris signature can give us verification that that tornado is actually there.”
And being able to confirm a tornado on the ground just by looking at radar can help convince people it’s time to take shelter.
The radar in Oklahoma City and the one down in Southwest Oklahoma are slated for the upgrade to the dual polarization technology in October.
It’s a $50 million project to get the technology placed across the country.
But forecasters say you can’t put a price on equipment that could help save lives.
Smith said, “Anytime that we have new technology that can help us we are excited about that.”
Experts warn this will not take the place of storm spotters and the need for all of us to be weather aware.
They say the new radar is just one more way to be 4Warned.