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Tornadoes have killed more than 530 people this year. Many scientists think some of those deaths could have been prevented, if the National Weather Service used more advanced detection and forecasting technology. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on two efforts to improve the warnings of deadly weather.
JON HAMILTON: On May 24, a tornado touched down in central Oklahoma. KOFR TV let people know.
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C: There it is: tornado ground three Southwest Chickasha. Chickasha, you folks in Chickasha, you're out of time.
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HAMILTON: Unidentified Man #2 (Storm Chaser): We are east of Chickasha on Highway 9, massive tornado on the ground.
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HAMILTON: But by chance, the storm was also being tracked by a separate, experimental radar system designed to give more precise information. Brenda Philips is part of the group that's been testing the system. She says as the tornado approached Newcastle, the city's emergency manager was looking at data from their radar.
BRENDA PHILIPS: And based on that data, he could see that the tornado was actually taking a turn to the north. And so with that, he was able to redeploy these first responders who were able then to get to the impacted area more quickly.
HAMILTON: Michael Zink is at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Zink says that during the Oklahoma tornado, the experimental radars did a better job than traditional radars because they were able to provide a fresh image of the storm every minute.
MICHAEL ZINK: The problem is that with the existing system you only get five-minute updates and fast-moving weather events like tornadoes can change.
HAMILTON: Zink says you need lots of radars to do that because the radio waves they use travel in a straight line.
ZINK: And the earth is round, as we all know.
HAMILTON: Zink says that means weather service radars have a big blind spot.
ZINK: So roughly 75 percent of the atmosphere below one kilometer are not covered by these radars, and that's an area where a lot of the weather is happening. And we are thinking of using our systems to fill these gaps to have better weather observations.
HAMILTON: Bruce Lev is part of a company called AirDat that says the 69 weather balloons just don't provide enough data for really good forecasting.
BRUCE LEV: The solution is to essentially make aircraft, commercial aircraft, into flying balloons.
HAMILTON: Instead of dangling sensors from balloons, he says, AirDat has attached them to more than 200 planes.
LEV: If you look at the nose of an aircraft, it's one of those little tubes or blades that sort of sticks out from the front portion of the airplane.
HAMILTON: Lev says the system already gathers more than 15 times as much data as the nation's weather balloons. And he says the new technology proved itself in the days before a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri in April.
LEV: Our forecasts were seeing severe rotation, were seeing substantial supercell activity in and around Joplin, Missouri 57 hours or more ahead of the tornadoes actually touching down.
HAMILTON: But Roger Pielke, Jr. from the University of Colorado Boulder says it's not clear how many lives that would save.
ROGER PIELKE JR: If you look at where people die from tornadoes, it's often in weakly constructed homes. And it's not that they didn't know that there was a storm bearing down on them; it's that they didn't have any options.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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