Storm Trackers Get a Better Eye on the Sky

New radar systems offer vital data to prepare broadcasters for 2013 hurricane season

Why This Matters

Calm (Warning) Before the Storms

Improved systems and apps for alerting viewers are playing an increasingly important role in tornado and hurricane season.

A number of major weather vendors have either deployed or are testing alert systems designed to offer better warnings of approaching storms. Baron Services has rolled out its SAF-T-NET alerting features in Alabama and has been expanding it into other markets, where it has been deployed by stations in Washington, D.C., and Florida, notes Mike Mougey, VP of broadcast sales and mobile for Baron Services. The system is geo-located so “you only get alerts that are threatening your area,” Mougey adds. The alerts are sent to users via phone, email or text.

WSI is offering its clients mobile apps that supply weather alerts, and Accu- Weather is beta testing an app that uses GPS to provide users with warnings when they are in the path of severe storms. This product will be useful both for consumers and stations that are sending their reporters and crews out into the field to track storms, notes Mike Smith, senior VP and chief innovation officer at AccuWeather.

Smith points out that a police officer was killed during the Joplin, Mo., storms of 2011. “When stations are sending their people out, this is a way of keeping them safe,” he notes.

The mobile alerts can also help boost ratings, says Bill Dow, VP and general manager of the Media Division at WSI. “They can bring viewers back to the TV and the Web, where there is better monetization,” he says. —GW

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On Feb. 10, devastating storms passed through
Hattiesburg, Miss., causing significant damage.
Local TV viewers were that much more
prepared for what was to come thanks to some newer
weather technologies that will be increasingly important
this year for weather reports made during tornado
and hurricane season.

Among several developments worth noting is the
National Weather Service’s widespread deployment of
dual-polarization (or “dual-pol”) radar systems that are
capable of providing much more data on tornadoes
and other severe weather patterns. The reports are so
sensitive that they can even detect the debris being
picked up by tornadoes, which gives meteorologists a
much better idea of when a storm has touched ground.

“They were used at the Hattiesburg disaster to give
customers in that area a much more timely warning of
what was going to happen,” says R. Lee Rainey, VP of
marketing at AccuWeather.

Weather monitoring technology company Baron
Services has been working on the deployments for
more than a year and a half, but 2013 will be the first
tornado and hurricane season where they are widely
deployed. “They are now installed in around 150 of
the 171 sites,” says Ardell Hill, president of broadcast
operations at Baron Services.

The importance of weather forecasting, especially
during powerful, significant storms, is not lost on anyone.
And to take advantage of the new radar systems,
all of the major weather technology providers have
been upgrading their offerings to help interpret the
new data. “If a meteorologist was used to looking at 10
sets of data from a single mode [radar system], they are
now looking at 10 to 100 times more data,” Hill says.

These systems are particularly useful for detecting
storms at night or during severe rainfall. “It gives us a
number of capabilities that we did not have before,”
says Mike Smith, senior VP and chief innovation officer
at AccuWeather. “During the Joplin [Mo.] tornado
[in May 2011], you couldn’t see the storm because it
was rain-wrapped. But with dual polarization, you can
tell when a storm is on the ground even at night and
be able to alert viewers.”

The data generated by the new radar makes it very
important that stations have adopted upgrade systems
from vendors that can better interpret the data and that
meteorologists undergo additional training, Hill stresses.
“There is definitely a learning curve,” he says. “Baron is
regularly holding classes and training seminars to help
the meteorologist process and understand the data.”

This also makes systems for interpreting the data
increasingly important. “The real battleground in terms
of radar and weather technologies is how sophisticated
your algorithms and technology are for analyzing what
it is showing,” says Rainey.

Jacob Wycoff, meteorologist and broadcast services
program manager at Earth Network at WeatherBug,
adds that stations using their products regularly draw
on live camera shots and real-time weather stats from
the WeatherBug weather stations in the storm’s path.
“We’ve been concentrating on building out this network,
and we now have 10,000 stations and over
2,000 cameras,” Wycoff says.

During Hurricane Sandy, “broadcasters were tapping
into our weather station at Turtle Cove Marina on
Grand Turk [in the Turks and Caicos islands] to report
on the incredible wind gusts there,” Wycoff adds. “It’s
all about providing unique angles and bringing major
storms to life using information and imagery.”

Another important area is in efforts by vendors like
AccuWeather and The Weather Channel Companies’
WSI Corp. to integrate their weather systems into solutions
for showing highway and traffic conditions.
“During a tropical storm or hurricane, traffic is a big
part of the story during evacuations,” says Bill Dow,
VP and general manager of the Media Division at WSI.

WSI acquired Weather Central last August; since
then, its engineers have been working to use technologies
from both companies to improve their products
for severe weather, Dow adds.

“It gives us more weather technologies so that we
can bring to all of our customers the best from both
companies,” he explains.

For example, technologies from WSI will improve
the data being supplied with Weather Central systems,
while technologies from Weather Central are being
incorporated into WSI’s Max Storm product to help
dissect storms and better illustrate weather events such
as hail.

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