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Better Weather Forecasts Make for Safer Travel

The National Weather Service is receiving a significant upgrade in its radar technology this year. By improving the ability to forecast precipitation and storms, it is hoped that the new radar system will help prevent deaths, including aviation fatalities related to bad weather. The upgrade is being compared to the installation of Doppler radar that started nationwide in the early 1990s.

Hundreds of Americans were killed by severe weather in 2011. Hurricanes, flash floods and tornadoes were among the leading causes of weather-related fatalities. The new technology, called dual-polarization radar, is intended to improve the ability of meteorologists to accurately predict severe weather, thus giving people a chance to seek shelter or take other safety measures to protect themselves.

The primary difference in the new radar is the amount of information provided. Forecasters will have more information than ever about the size of precipitation, as well as the rate at which it is falling. While current radar clearly shows where it is raining, it is not sufficient to identify the heavy rains that lead to flash flooding or the precursors that indicate the formation of a tornado.

Weather is a factor in nearly one third of all fatal aviation accidents. In some cases, severe weather is the direct cause of the accident. In others, pilots make errors in properly gauging the weather conditions. These accidents are particularly common at night, when weather forecasters do not have eye-witness accounts to help them bolster the information provided by traditional radar. While it remains to be seen how much of an impact superior forecasting will make on preventing fatal airplane accidents, we can hope that the new technology will make air travel safer for us all.

Source: USA Today, "U.S. weather radar network gets upgrade," by Doyle Rice, 23 January 2012

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