How to read weather radar like a pro

How to read weather radar like a pro

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Spring is here, and that means warmer temperatures. It also means we have to be prepared for the risk of tornadoes, large hail, damaging winds, and flooding. But severe storms no longer surprise us as much as they used to, thanks to weather radar.

How does weather radar work?

Weather radar works by sending two perpendicular beams of microwave radiation into the atmosphere. Some of the radiation reflects off objects in the atmosphere — rain, hail, snow, or something else — and returns to the radar. The program measures the strength of the returned radiation and how long it takes to bounce back in order to determine the location and intensity of precipitation. The shape of the beam, which looks like a plus sign if you look at it head-on, also allows radar to detect the size and shape of objects it detects, which is useful in detecting hail and tornado debris.

The best way to stay safe from dangerous weather, whether you're hiking or hanging out at home, is to invest in a good radar app for your phone and learn how to read what it's telling you.

How to read weather radar: 4 helpful tips

Look at more than just the rainfall

Almost everyone who has ever used a weather app or watched a weather forecast on TV knows the basics of spotting precipitation on weather radar images. Most color scales are simple rainbows, with warmer colors indicating heavy rainfall.

However, just looking at rainfall alone won't tell you everything you need to know about the storm. A dark red spot moving toward your location indicates a thunderstorm is on the way. A line of heavy precipitation moving in unison is a sign of a stormy line that can carry gusty winds.

Radar image of a supercell thunderstorm producing a large tornado in Alabama on March 3, 2019 (NOAA/Gibson Ridge)

A storm that looks like a fishing hook is particularly concerning. The image above shows a classic supercell — a thunderstorm with a rotating updraft — in Alabama on March 3. The rotating updraft allows the storm to produce large hail, strong wind gusts, and powerful tornadoes. This particular thunderstorm produced an EF-4 tornado with winds estimated at 180 miles per hour. (EF stands for the Enhanced Fujita scale, which ranks tornado damage from 0 to 5.)

Find out what's happening inside the storm

In the 1990s, weather radar technology advanced enough to allow us to see winds during thunderstorms. Using the Doppler effect to measure how quickly and in the direction rain, hail, and snow move, it can accurately tell us the wind speed and direction of the storm. Velocity images are very important, because they tell you what's happening inside the storm, something you inherently can't know just by looking at rainfall. This technological advancement has saved countless lives over the past two decades.

The tornado that struck Greensboro, North Carolina, in April 2018 is a great example of the importance of looking at the wind inside a storm. The following radar image shows precipitation within a thunderstorm line during the progress of an EF-2 tornado.

(NOAA/Gibson Ridge)

Nothing seems too suspicious, right? But looking at the rain alone is deceiving. It becomes clear that there is a tornado on the ground when you flip through the speed images and look at the wind swirling inside the storm.

(NOAA/Gibson Ridge)

Speed ​​images are always displayed in red and green. Red shows winds blowing away from the radar, green shows winds blowing toward the radar. Stronger winds usually equate to brighter colors in radar images. You can detect rotation and potential tornadoes in a thunderstorm by looking for strong winds blowing in different directions next to each other. Bright colors all moving in one direction are a sign of damaging straight line winds as seen in a squall line.

Recognize the limitations of radar

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Like any technology, there are limitations. Mountains are a major obstacle to radar use in the western United States. Large swaths of land in Oregon, Nevada, and Utah have little useful radar coverage in the lower levels of the atmosphere due to the region's rugged terrain, which can make it more difficult to detect hazards in these areas.

The height of the radar beam itself is also a challenge. The beam rises higher from the ground with the distance it moves away from itself From radar due to the curvature of the Earth. This means that the radar beam exceeds 10,000 feet once it is tens of miles from the radar site, making it difficult to see low-level features in thunderstorms, such as damaging winds and tornadoes, especially in parts of the Plains and Midwest where the radar coverage is relatively coinciding. Weak with frequent thunderstorm activity.

Get the best radar app

You can see the weather radar on any weather app for your phone. Unfortunately, most of these apps lack detailed radar images, and are limited to an overly soft, blurry blob of precipitation heading toward your location. Sometimes this can help, but sometimes it's not enough, especially if you're hiking.

The best radar app you can put on your phone is RadarScope. This professional-level app lets you track storms just like meteorologists do — in fact, most meteorologists use the app on a daily basis. The app isn't free — it costs $10 for both Android and iOS — but it's worth it, especially if you're involved in activities that require careful monitoring of rapidly changing weather conditions.

You have more options if you are at home or in the office and have access to a computer. The best radar software for your computer is made by Gibson Ridge. Programs like GR2Analyst, the program I used for the radar images in this article, are great for analyzing radar images down to the pixel, just like you see on TV during severe weather coverage.

Weather-related injuries and deaths have declined steadily over the decades due to improved detection, warning, and prevention, but it's important to check the weather frequently if you plan to spend any significant time outdoors. Even if you can track radar like a pro, making sure you have the ability to receive and respond to severe weather warnings should always be part of your weather safety plan when you're outside on a bad weather day.

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