Weather Service hopes new tech will better detect tornadoes

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - Every minute matters when it comes to issuing a thunderstorm or tornado warning.

Just a few weeks ago, the local National Weather Service in Grand Rapids received new radar technology to hopefully do exactly that, give you more time.

Meteorologist Cyndi Kahlbaum toured the weather office to see how this new technology works.

The new scan gives meteorologists an extra set of eyes on the storm -- which is crucial in West Michigan, where twisters spin up in a split second.
The Doppler radar at the Grand Rapids National Weather Service keeps a very close eye on the skies of West Michigan. Now, new software will help forecasters scan storms even quicker than before.

National Weather Service Warning Coordinator Jim Maczko says, "It's a technology that allows us to get more data at the very lowest level of the storms. Where before we had data every five minutes, with the new software upgrade we will be able to get data, at the very lowest level of the storm, every two minutes."

The Supplemental Adaptive Intra-Volume Low-Level Scan, or SAILS, is basically cutting scan time in half.

Maczko says, "In Michigan, if you think about it, most of our tornadoes are on the ground for less than ten minutes, so every five minutes, we may miss tornadoes entirely. With a two-minute scan, with this software upgrade, we should be able to get a better picture of the lowest level of the storms to try to give a better advantage when issuing warnings."

To better understand what meteorologists look for on Doppler radar when issuing a tornado warning, here's a little Radar 101.

"Doppler radar shows us the rotation within storms. When you're talking about large tornadoes, rotation is very visible and very easy to spot," Maczko says. "Large tornadoes are very predictable. The small tornadoes that we have here in Michigan, the radar data may show us some rotation, but we need more frequent scans to give us a better idea because small tornadoes, which are most of our tornadoes, are nearly impossible to predict."

The software was installed just days after the July 6 tornadoes that caused damage in Ionia County and southern Kent County. The National Weather Service is hoping the SAILS technology gives them the clues needed to get more predictability on the weaker tornadoes to get warnings out quicker and potentially save lives.