Colorado State Professor Leading Oklahoma Test of Sophisticated Tornado-Detecting Radars

A Colorado State University professor is leading a test of a sophisticated network of radars in Oklahoma’s "tornado alley" to improve early warning systems for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, possibly saving thousands of lives each year.

Tests on the radar network began on April 9 and will conclude on June 10.

The radars are in or near Chickasha, Lawton and Cyril and Rush Springs, Okla., but Colorado State faculty and students monitor the radars 24 hours a day, seven days a week from computers in the College of Engineering.

In 2003, Colorado State teamed with universities across the nation in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, or CASA, to develop a network of radar systems. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the lead institution.

The radars system in the Oklahoma test bed is the result of a multidisciplinary collaborative effort among all of CASA’s partners: Colorado State, UMass, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Puerto Rico.

An average 800 tornadoes are reported across the United States every year, leading to more than 1,500 injuries and at least 80 deaths, according to the National Weather Service.

"These new radar networks look down low," said V. "Chandra" Chandrasekar, Colorado State electrical and computer engineering professor, who is leading the Spring Experiment on behalf of the multi-agency partnership. "The goal is that national and international agencies will adopt this new low-cost technology. Ultimately, weather forecasters will be able to use the network to direct resources to regions where threats exist. That’s when we’ll know we’ve been successful."

Chandrasekar is the leader of the remote sensing stage of the project and also the deputy director in charge of research programs.

The first set of radars created from the CASA partnership, called IP1, is being used for severe weather detection in Oklahoma’s so-called tornado alley, which is east of the line between Oklahoma City and Norman. The region experiences about 22 tornadoes per year.

The radar has a smaller footprint than most weather-sensing radars and observes closer to the ground, reconfiguring itself to optimize for tornado observations. It has already detected tornadoes in the test bed, Chandrasekar said.

CASA partners meet every morning at 10 a.m. to discuss the day’s forecast and the system readiness.  

"Users of weather information are an integral part of the spring experiment," said Brenda Philips, director of Industry, Government and End-User Partnerships for CASA. "We have National Weather Service forecasters and emergency managers looking at our data in real time and telling us how they would use it to improve the warning process."

"We’ll continue to operate the radar after this spring experiment to continue to learn from it," Philips said. "This is part of a 10-year vision for a new weather observation system."

The first radar set for IP1 was designed by researchers, faculty and students from Colorado State, U Mass and the University of Oklahoma and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagez. The low-power radars are highly reliable, less expensive, adaptive and can operate collaboratively in a system of similar radars. It’s adaptive in that it can zoom in on particular regions and adapt to changing weather conditions; for example, to detect and record different types of precipitation.

CASA Radar 1 was first tested alongside the CSU-CHILL staff next to the CHILL facility east of Greeley in 2005.

CSU-CHILL, one of the nation’s most advanced weather radar research facilities, supports the atmospheric science and engineering research communities by providing data and evaluating experimental techniques in remote sensing of the atmosphere. The facility, jointly operated by the Colorado State departments of atmospheric science and electrical and computer engineering, is funded by the National Science Foundation and the state of Colorado.

CHILL is an S-band frequency radar that operates at 3 GigaHertz. CASA’s primary mission is to develop a Distributed Collaborative Adaptive Sensing radar network at higher frequencies such as X-band. The S-band frequency is used by the current nationwide deployment of weather radars; however, X-band is about three times the frequency of S-band. Such higher frequency is needed to make smaller and cheaper radars.

CASA’s radar project consists of three test beds: the first in Oklahoma’s tornado alley, the second in Houston to monitor and predict floods more accurately and the third in Puerto Rico to improve monitoring of floods produced by thunderstorms and hurricanes over complex terrain. The second test bed also will strive to improve the monitoring of air pollution and air transport of chemicals.

In addition to individual university contributions, CASA funding included a $17 million grant from the National Science Foundation, $5 million from the commonwealth of Massachusetts and nearly $6 million from corporations and other in-kind donations. CASA’s industry partners include Raytheon, IBM, Vaisala, Vieux and Associates, EWR Weather Radar Systems and Detect Inc. Government partners include the National Weather Service, the National Severe Storms Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy.