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.

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow