Technology brings unprecedented accuracy in severe weather forecasting

Meteorologist still rely on storm chasers for current reports

Jim Cunningham
April 09, 2018 - 8:13 am

National Weather Service, Pleasant Hill, MO


Forecasting the weather remains a tricky business, but new technology is allowing meteorologists to look further into the future and provide more accurate predictitions.

Jared Leighton has seen a lot of advancements in his time as a National Weather Service meteorologist. Radar technology continues to develop, along with high resolution monitors and satellite imaging. Because of all that advance storm warnings have improved.

"As far as severe weather goes, some of the short-term models have become so good that you can almost forecast where a supercell is going to be in the next three to six hours," Leighton said.

That's good, because supercells spawn severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Nothing is fool-proof, because conditions change all the time.

"A lot of times you can even forecast strong, severe weather, but things can happen the morning of a severe weather day that will completely mess it up," Leighton said.

Forecast accuracy diminishes after 24 hours, and it's even more difficult to forecast beyond three days, Leighton said.

Even with all the new technology it's still nice to have a pair of human eyes looking up at the storm to let people know what is going on in real time. That's where storm chasers come in.

Meteorologist Jennifer Narrimore with The Storm Report Radio Network communicates with storm chasers while she covers weather events. The chasers themselves have new technology at their fingertips, including smartphones, wifi hookups and laptop computers.

Storm chasers use social media to relay information to a wide audience, including the professionals at the National Weather Service and mainstream media outlets.

"Chasers are bringing back pictures and video of what they're seeing, whether it's rotation or of they're actually seeing a tornado on the ground," Narramore said.

In her 20 years as a broadcast meteorologist, Narramore has never seen a tornado for herself. She usually works during major storm events, so she does most of her "chasing" behind the microphone in a studio.

Narramore got her first chance to experience first-hand what it's like to watch a big storm develop about a year and a half ago. While visiting a radio station in Wichita area, a storm chasing team invited her along for a ride.

She didn't see a tornado that day, but she still had a great time with her enthusiastic comrades. If she had seen a twister, Narramore would have owed the crew a steak dinner, something she would have gladly provided.

"I was able to watch some of the supercells that were rolling through and I got to see some big time hail," Narramore said. "I loved it."

Amateur storm chasers have proliferated in recent years; there was a big spike in the hobby after the 1996 movie "Twister" romanticized tornado hunting. They all want to get video footage of a big tornado forming. 

A lot of chasers can be tracked using their GPS signals. 

"Sometimes you can turn that (website) on and you can see hundreds of chasers surrounding one supercell," Narramore said. "They're trying to get close to see if they can get a good shot."

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