History of Weather Radar, from WWII Technology to Today’s Applications

BISMARK, ND (KFYR) — During our deep dive radar series over the past six weeks, we’ve taken you inside the Bismarck National Weather Service’s radar to explain the basics, talk about how it works how it bends at different angles to create a three-dimensional picture of the atmosphere, discusses how maintenance is done, explains the Doppler and dual polarization technologies that radars use to see inside storms, and finally Talked about some of the limitations of our current radar network.

But how did we get to this point of radar technology and what does it hold for the future? Here’s a brief history of Weather Radar.

The underlying principle of all radar was first observed by Heinrich Hertz in 1886 when he discovered that electromagnetic waves could be reflected from various objects, and even focused into beams by suitable reflectors.

Various research projects on the potential applications of radar continued, and by 1930, Lawrence Hyland with the Naval Research Laboratory found that an airplane flying over his radio antenna altered the received signals.

In 1935, Robert Watson-Watt used pulsed radio frequency energy to observe targets at long ranges up to 90 miles away.

Until World War II, radar was used by armies around the world for scanning for incoming airplanes. But the use of radar for weather observation happened by accident as military radar operators noticed that their displays were showing precipitation along with their intended aircraft targets.

After the war, the National Weather Service received 25 radars that were used by the Navy, and in 1959, the Weather Service began rolling out its first network of radars, called the Weather Surveillance Radar, or WSR-57, as it was designed. In 1957 using World War II technology. It only gave coarse reflectance data and no velocity data, making the tornado extremely difficult to detect. Precipitation was detected on the radar screen using a grease pencil and forecasters had to manually turn the crank to adjust the radar’s scan height.

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Radar image on WSR-57 of tornado-producing supercells over Minneapolis, 1965
Radar image on WSR-57 of tornado-producing supercells over Minneapolis, 1965(NOAA)

An updated version, the WSR-74, complemented and replaced the older radars introduced in 1977 with new and more reliable components. 128 of the WSR-57 and WSR-74 model radars were spread across the country, including North Dakota, and operated as the Weather Service’s radar network until the 1990s.

Network of WSR-57 and WSR-74 Radars
Network of WSR-57 and WSR-74 Radars(National Weather Service Modernization Committee)

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, researchers began developing the Next Generation Radar System, or NEXRAD, which would involve the use of Doppler technology. This was a major step forward for meteorologists, allowing them to determine the speed and direction of precipitation within storms.

These WSR-88D radars, with D, standing for Doppler, were initially deployed operationally in 1992. With these radars the resolution of the data was very high and it was easy to pinpoint bad weather. The Bismarck WSR-88D radar was established in 1994 and radar technology has continued to improve since then, with several upgrades to the nationwide network, particularly with the introduction of dual-polarization technology that has occurred over the past 10 years.

Chauncey Schultz, science and operations officer for the Bismarck National Weather Service, said: “This is one of the hallmark changes in technology within the meteorological field over our lifetime. Prior to the mid-1990s, when these new radars were installed, So how much advanced notice you’ll get to the alert, that average time was just minutes. Now, that’s 10 minutes, 20 minutes, thanks to the installation of radar, all the new technology, and other research we’ve learned since then, sure. But radar dripping was the hallmark turning point for improving warnings in the United States.”

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155 NEXRAD radars are now stationed throughout the county, most of which are either with National Weather Service offices or near Air Force bases, as in the case of radars northeast of Minot. Even though NEXRAD radars have now exceeded their original lifetime estimate of 20 years, the radars are currently undergoing a service life extension program to operate into the 2030s.

Worldwide WSR-88D NEXRAD Radar Network
Worldwide WSR-88D NEXRAD Radar Network(NWS)

But in the meantime, private companies like ClimVision have stepped in to help fill some gaps in the existing National Weather Service radar network with their own proprietary radars. and future radar technology, such as rapid scanning phased array radars that can be operated electronically, giving users the ability to control how, when and where radar scans are being researched and developed.

multi-function phased array radar
multi-function phased array radar(NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory)

Concluding this series, I hope you now have a deeper understanding of the weather radar technology that many of us take for granted and think about the next time you load radar on our app or tell us how to use radar. Let’s see how radars work.

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