Case Study

Severe Storms Research Center Developing New Technologies to Increase Tornado Warning Time for Georgia Citizens

Published: February 21, 2000

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Technology that is expected to improve tornado warning time in Georgia is now operating in three metro Atlanta locations.

The installation of new severe weather detection technology is the result of more than one year of work by researchers at the Severe Storms Research Center (SSRC) at Georgia Tech.

The SSRC was funded last spring following a recommendation by the Governor's Task Force on Warning and Communications. It is funded by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency , the Georgia General Assembly and a grant from Bell South Business Systems.

Now, with Severe Weather Awareness Week in Georgia set for Feb. 21-25, Georgia Tech researchers, GEMA officials and the National Weather Service are ready to start systems testing in north Georgia. Also, researchers have begun studies to develop new tornado detection technologies.

"Georgia is especially vulnerable to tornadoes, and these storms differ in many respects from the tornadoes that affect other parts of the country, such as the Midwest," said GEMA Director Gary W. McConnell.

"The work of this research center in studying Georgia-specific weather conditions and exploring new technologies will have a major impact in reducing the deaths and serious injuries caused by severe weather," McConnell added.

One of the three state-of-the-art Warning Decision Support Systems (WDSS) funded by the SSRC is installed at the Peachtree City, Ga., National Weather Service (NWS) office. It is the only such system permanently installed at an NWS forecast office in the Southeast. Radar sites in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina feed data to the Peachtree City office, which issues storm warnings for most of north Georgia.

The two other WDSS systems are installed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Researchers are using these systems to determine if the WDSS tornado recognition logic can be better "tuned" to the tornadoes of the Southeast.

"Tornadoes in Georgia and elsewhere in the Southeast are often short-lived events," said Gene Greneker, director of the SSRC. "Here, tornadoes can come and go in 10 minutes, as opposed to an hour in Kansas."

WDSS technology -- which includes advanced image processing, artificial intelligence, neural networks and other algorithms that use Doppler radar data -- was developed at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. There, studies showed a 50 percent increase in warning time for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods in Great Plains states.

"Another goal of the SSRC is to fund the development of new technologies that may be able to detect the early formation of tornadoes," Greneker said. "If we are successful, these technologies could complement the Doppler radars operated by the National Weather Service." Complementary technologies being developed by Georgia Tech researchers are:

  1. early detection of tornadoes based on the very low frequency acoustic waves produced by these storms (Dr. Krishan Ahuja, GTRI);
  2. early detection of tornadoes based on a pattern of increasing electrical discharges produced by cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes (Dr. Tom Pratt, GTRI);
  3. a more meaningful 3D severe thunderstorm display that is designed with human perception capabilities in mind (Nick Faust, GTRI);
  4. high-resolution documentation of tornado tracks based on storm path and duration information gathered at the scene (Dr. Jim St. John, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences); and
  5. more effective tornado detection algorithms than are currently part of WDSS (Dr. Mark Richards, GTRI).

"While these technologies are experimental, they are promising," Greneker said. "They will be tested during this year's spring tornado season."

After the WDSS technology has been tested in north Georgia, it will be exported to south Georgia as funding permits, Greneker said.

"We also hope to be able to secure funding to continue to operate the SSRC, keep the WDSS in Georgia and support the complementary tornado detection research effort over the next several years," he added.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory has tested WDSS in various parts of the country since 1996. One test took place at the National Weather Service facility in Peachtree City during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But because of the expense of deploying WDSS, it will not be fully implemented in other states, except for Georgia and test site locations, for another five to seven years, Greneker said.

"Georgia is leading the region in early detection of severe weather," Greneker said. "We are truly on the cutting edge of technology with this system and our research to optimize it." In addition to improving warning time, WDSS should result in fewer false alarms.

"False alarms desensitize the public to valid warnings," Greneker said. "While WDSS will not totally eliminate the false alarm problem, test data shows that it can help the problem."