Weather Science

The future of meteorology visits Hobart William-Smith College

It’s amazing to think about how far the field of meteorology has come in the past 50 years or so. Atmospheric science has evolved from a minor concern among the public to a media cash cow. A primary reason of the growing interest in meteorology directly stems from great technological advancements in the 20th and 21st centuries. It seems like everyday there is a cutting-edge tool that will help meteorologists in their quest for the perfect forecast. Recently, this revolutionary invention is a portable doppler radar, known as the Doppler on Wheels (DOW).

Implemented in the 1940’s, radar was initially used to detect enemy aircraft during World War II. These radar sent out microwave signals towards a desired target and listened for its reflection, allowing the U.S. Navy to successfully decipher the enemy and their whereabouts.

When military radar operators noticed strange features on the radar, they reasoned that the radar must have picked up precipitation. Not too long after this, the first radar primarily used for weather was developed, commencing the need for weather instruments.

Due to its accuracy in pinpointing the location and evolution of precipitation, radar has been one of the most important tools used in meteorology. About twenty years ago, all weather radar was updated to Doppler radar, a feature allowing for the detection of wind flow within regions of precipitation. This upgrade allowed meteorologists to identify areas of rotation in regions of precipitation, a telltale sign for tornadoes.

Across the U.S., there are 155 Doppler radar that meteorologists use on a daily basis.  However, there will always be one major downfall with stationary radar: they can only “see” so far away. Essentially that means the further away an object is, the less accurate the radar is.

That’s why atmospheric scientist Joshua Wurman created a fleet of three trucks known as the Doppler on Wheels. The concept behind the DOW is the closer it is to the weather phenomenon, the better data the radar will receive. This allows the DOW to be a pioneer in severe weather research.  Over the past 15 years, the DOW has collected data within a mile of a numerous tornadoes and within the eye wall of multiple land falling hurricanes.

The DOW even measured the fastest wind speed ever recorded on earth, a 318 mph wind gust from a tornado outside of Oklahoma City in 1999.

Although the DOW operators pride themselves on being trailblazers for tornado and hurricane research, the DOW has also recently studied other weather phenomena like lake effect snow. In fact, this February the DOW made a two-week trip to work with students at Hobart & William Smith Colleges to study how lake effect bands behave. During this visit, students were given the opportunity to operate the DOW and decipher the movement and precipitation type of lake effect off Lake Ontario. This is the same work done by real meteorologists in the field.

Despite the fact that the DOW has departed HWS, students will have the chance to work with it once more, as it will make an extended two-month visit next December when all three DOW’s will travel to upstate New York to further study lake effect precipitation.