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storm chasing and tornado spotting

Portable Radar For Storm Chasers
by Matt Ver Steeg, WeatherEdge, Inc.

The storm chasing community has been witness to exponential growth in our ranks, especially since the movie "Twister" hit the silver screen. Many people were overwhelmed with all of the techno-goodies featured in the film, and apparently felt that they needed all of those toys in order to be recognized by the public as 'official' storm chasers. One device has me concerned about its deployment and use by chasers. It's portable marine radar.

Since 1999, I've lost count of the number of cars, trucks, and minivans that sport radomes on their vehicles. Many times, these radars were running under clear blue sky. I know. We were following you down the Interstate, and you kept setting off our radar detector every few seconds!

I'll get to the point of why I'm concerned. These radars emit up to 4KW (that's 4,000 watts) or higher radiated power. In contrast, my microwave oven cooks food quite well with a measly 100 watts. Think about it're throwing out 4,000 watts+ of microwave energy mere inches away from your brain. See a problem with that? One day my storm chasing group stopped at a chaser convergence, where a radar was operating on the roof of a vehicle. People were standing at eyeball level to this thing, oblivious to the potential danger.

Now I don't know about you, but I don't like the idea of being irradiated in pursuit of my hobby. I've had cancer once, and don't care to ever share my body with it ever again. A real danger exists being in such close proximity to 4KW of microwave radiation! Shoot, even 600 MILLIWATT cell phones are being studied as potential cancer causes.

Many will say that these radars are a valuable tool. Are they really? They have limited ranges, with an average around 24 nautical miles. And, how can a $2,000 marine radar give you the quality of a $750,000 Nexrad site? It can't. It was designed to see boats, shorelines, and rocky outcroppings, not tornadoes. At the right place and the right time, you might be able to see a hook echo, or differentiate between precip cores at night. But otherwise, I'd challenge it's use. I want my fellow storm chasers to be safe out there. We're already in harms way, why tempt providence when it's not needed?

There are other solutions these days. In the last 2 years, I've used a software package called Storm Lab. Used with my laptop computer and a cellphone with an external antenna, it's proved extremely reliable at obtaining all of the nexrad radar products while in the field storm chasing. The files are downloaded in a text format, and takes (on average) less than 2 minutes to grab data from a nexrad radar site.

Another possible solution that I've been testing is the Baron Services, Inc. XM system that is being marketed through WxWorx. I use the aviation package, and there are several features that are useful for storm chasing applications. Check it out. I'll write more later, after I've given it a more thorough test drive!

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Storm chasing is dangerous. You could be hurt or killed in its pursuit, especially if you have little or no knowledge of severe storms and their environment. Chase hazards include but are not limited to heavy rain, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, large hail, tornadoes, and flying debris. Hydroplaning on the road and traffic accidents also occur. If you desire to chase, get informed and educated about weather. Contact your local National Weather Service Office, and enroll in a SKYWARN training class. Read and view all of the published information regarding severe weather, thunderstorms, and tornadoes that you can. You are responsible for educating yourself. Next, contact an experienced chaser in your area, and arrange to travel with them, until you've gained sufficient experience to go it alone. Even at that, veteran chasers get caught in harm's way from time to time. Play it safe. This page is for informational and educational use, and the authors disavow any responsibility for actions you may take.

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