Existing NWS ground-based Doppler radar systems work in the s-band frequency (about 10 centimeters wavelength), which can detect storms coming more than 100 miles away. Mobile radar works in the x-band frequency, which is a smaller wavelength (2.5 to 4 centimeters) and can detect details about smaller particles like soot or debris at a closer range.
"It will be covering parts of atmosphere that are not covered," said Mark Hunt, director of technology programs for NBCUniversal owned TV stations. "That will help with tornado events. It can see more clearly lower scale tornadoes and debris balls."
Several universities and the Indonesian Air Force have mobile radar units, Hunt said, but he says this effort is the first use by commercial weather forecasters in the United States.
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Could these mobile Doppler radar units get even smaller, perhaps one day fitting into a car dashboard, backpack or on a wristwatch? One problem is the radiation emitted by the radar beam. The unit would have to be screened from people, making a small low-power radar less effective.
But radar is getting both faster and better.
Scientists at the National Severe Storm Center in Norman, Okla., are working on the next generation of radar systems that will get a 3-D picture of the atmosphere, rather than slicing it into circular layers, according to Jessica Schultz, National Radar Center program director.
Instead of a rotating dish, the new phased array weather radar will be a fixed antenna.
"You can see the entire volume of atmosphere at one time," Schultz said. "Now they have to spin and look at the atmosphere in layers."
This advance won't be ready for another decade, but will significantly boost the time and quality of severe storm prediction, she added.
The United States is tornado central, with more than 1,000 each year, according to the National Weather Service.