Picturing the Weather

Last night as Snowmageddon 2011 approached the greater Detroit area, Mrs. engineerd and I were glued to the TV watching the multicolored images of snow approaching our humble abode. Well, the good news is we survived. In fact, the snowfall total was less than predicted. However, hours of entertainment were ours courtesy of Doppler RADAR.

Weather RADAR has its roots in the military RADAR installations used during WW2. RADAR operators noticed noise in the return signal from rain, snow, sleet, cats and dogs. After the war, these operators applied their observations to determining the best way to use this newfangled technology to report and predict the weather.

Researchers in the US, Canada and UK each contributed to the knowledge of how to use RADAR for weather prediction. Over time, they learned how to calculate the amount, direction, speed and intensity of precipitation. They also learned how to detect certain elements of storms on visible to the naked eye that will indicate whether or not it could cause tornadoes.

1965 image showing thunderstorm supercells forming over Minneapolis-St. Paul

Today, weather RADAR technology is now available to anyone with an internet connection. You can go to sites like or the National Weather Service and see the current Doppler RADAR image and even an animation of the last few hours showing you how a storm is moving. I even have an app on my phone that is just the weather RADAR image of my current location, as determined by GPS.

We almost take this technology for granted, but before WW2 it was the Farmer’s Almanac and simple observation that gave us the bulk of our weather information. Although, that was probably as accurate as our weather prediction is now.

[Image Credits: Public Domain]

  • <10" in Rochester NY. I'm so damn disappointed. Plus RIT doesn't close unless it's serious snow and this storm just didn't deliver. Meanwhile any public facility in the greater metro area is closed.

  • tonyola

    I like the Wundermap radar maps at the Weather Underground site. Not only are they updated every couple of minutes, but you can zoom in to street level (including aerial photos) and actually see a storm moving towards your house. Quite accurate in my experience and very cool.

    • I just checked those out and holy hell are they sweet! I haven't used weather underground in a while. A few years ago there was a problem with their server or something and the local weather didn't update for 2 days. I'm a fan once more.

      • tonyola

        While the NOAA sites have more detailed zone-specific forecasts, Weather Underground has two big advantages: 1) the Wundermaps; and, 2) much more hurricane information, including storm models and such.

  • I love me some satellite shots myself. This one gives a whole hemisphere view for a different perspective.

  • P161911

    I remember reading about some study that said you would have the same accuracy as the weatherman if you just predicted sunshine everyday. Both would be about 60% accurate. This might have been based on a 5 or 7 day forecast though.

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