Dec. 20, 2000 How fast is a hurricane usually blowing when it makes landfall? Researchers still don't know for sure. Current wind speeds for hurricanes over land are estimates based on the damage they leave in their path. But all that will change this April, when Texas A&M University unveils its new mobile radar system, SMART-R.
"SMART-R stands for Shared Mobile Atmosphere Research and Teaching Radar," said Michael Biggerstaff, an atmospheric sciences professor in Texas A&M's College of Geosciences. "The project involves building two Doppler radars, each on its own 33 foot long trailer. The entire rig -- trailer, pedestal and radar dish -- will stand 14 feet high, and the antenna dishes themselves will be eight feet in diameter.
"The large antenna will focus more energy for better resolution, allowing us to detect smaller storms, like tornadoes," he observed. "If they were any larger, however, they couldn't go down the road, and the whole driving force behind SMART-R is that it's mobile."
A joint project of Texas A&M, Texas Tech University, the University of Oklahoma, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), the dishes are being built in the basement of the geosciences building on the Texas A&M campus, while the NSSL is outfitting the trailers at its headquarters in Norman, Okla. Both trailers and mounting pedestals must be specially designed to be strong enough to withstand the tremendous loads generated by high winds hitting the big dishes.
"In March, we'll use a crane to hoist the dishes out of our basement and mount them on the trailers," Biggerstaff said. "Once we've got the dishes on the trucks, we'll take them down to Florida during August and September -- peak hurricane season -- for their first major field test."
Although SMART-R is especially designed to image the precipitation and winds that occur within any strong storm, including tornadoes, microburst, and horizontal windstorms, Biggerstaff says its real advantage will be in allowing researchers to track hurricanes once they hit land.
"Tornadic storms have been well studied," he said. "And when hurricanes are over water, chase planes equipped with Doppler radar can fly into them and take wind speed and other measurements. But once a hurricane hits land, it spawns multiple tornadoes, making conditions too dangerous for weather planes to fly in."
SMART-R can be placed off to the side of the hurricane's initial landfall zone, as much as 50 to 100 miles away, and measure at a distance the hurricane's wind field over a broad area. Computers mounted in the cabs of the mobile radar trucks will contain software to analyze and archive the radar data.
"More people die from the inland floods that accompany hurricanes than from the winds themselves," Biggerstaff said. "SMART-R will enable us to track the evolution of hurricane's changing wind patterns and predict how much rain to expect."
"We'll be able to deploy the SMART-R rigs with only three days advance notice, from Texas to South Carolina," he observed. "The mobility of having the radar dishes on trucks will make such quick response possible."
The Gulf Coast has suffered hurricane and tornado damage on many occasions, such as on June 17, 1997, when 190,000 Houston homes lost power due to severe straight-line winds on that day.
"On that occasion, the storms were small and evolved rapidly," Biggerstaff said. "There weren't enough radars close enough together to allow us to make accurate predictions. SMART-R, with its rapid deployment, will allow us to connect enough data to make better forecasts and warn people earlier of approaching storm danger."
Older technology, such as cars equipped with sensors to measure winds and barometric pressure and weather balloons released from vans, did not give meteorologists enough information to accurately predict when high winds would occur on the surface of the ground. Old algorithms generated up to an 80 percent false alarm rate, with only a 40 percent prediction success, Biggerstaff said.
"The dishes we're building are basically modifications of surplus radar apparatus from the National Weather Service," he observed. "Three years ago we went to Lubbock, Texas, and Meridian, Miss., and dismantled old dishes and brought them here. Jerry Guynes, senior engineer for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and Rick O'Neill, a machinist for the Department of Oceanography, have been creating modifications from raw metal to make SMART-R a reality."
"There have been radars on trucks before," Biggerstaff said. "But no one has gone to so much trouble to make them as rugged as SMART-R will be."
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