Storm Tracking History | About Us

Storm Tracking History

 

 

  • Tracking our Progress: From Storm Tracking to Tornado Prediction

    Explaining the Basis of Baron Services' Severe Weather Tools
    By Robert O. Baron, President and Chief Executive Officer

    Over 15 years ago, Baron Services introduced the concept of storm tracking by combining live radar and strike-by-strike lightning with a flexible mapping database—a uniquely powerful revolution that changed the way broadcasters present severe weather information to the public.

    Since those early days, our aggressive development of new technologies has proceeded at a rapid pace, resulting in faster, more precise severe weather information than ever before. We've been fortunate to have an enthusiastic group of customers, many of whom assisted us in those pioneering efforts. Over time, though, we've come to understand that our newer customers aren't necessarily familiar with why our "storm tracks," "Shear Markers" and "SCITs" are far more accurate than similar features pro-offered by others. And that's why this document exists: to explain the basis for the severe weather tools you have in your weather center, and why Baron tools are in a class of their own.

  • Nov. 15, 1989: The Beginnings of Baron Services

    As Chief Meteorologist at an NBC affiliate in Huntsville, AL, I thought we were equipped to handle the worst that severe weather could throw at us. A rare F-4 tornado ravaging downtown Huntsville in November, 1989, however, proved all of us in the weather community wrong; in fact, most of what we knew about the tornado came from a police observation of one "on the ground" reported over the scanner. Obviously, the technology to do what we needed just wasn't there.

    We lost 23 citizens in that one storm. There had been no warning, and no way for us to find out the tornado's current location, size, movement—any specific information that could help us alert those in harm's way. What we needed to save lives were weather tools. What we had were weather gadgets that looked good, but paid scant attention to accuracy or timeliness.

    When Baron Services was incorporated two months later, the disaster had naturally generated a new question for us, "How can we do better?" In working through that question, we soon specified three key areas where we would direct the new company's focus:


    Above: Storm damage near Memorial Parkway in Huntsville, AL following the Nov. 15, 1989 tornado.
    Image courtesy NOAA Photo Library

    • The accurate detection of a weather threat
    • Specific dissemination of information on that threat to affected residents
    • Immediate response from those in harm's way

    Typically, all these areas had to come together within a 10-minute window in order to save lives—to provide the public with enough time to seek shelter from incoming storms. Over the past couple years we've added "Prediction" to the group as will be explained in the section on the Baron Tornado index, but Prediction, Detection and Dissemination (in order to generate proper) Response has continued to be the company focus..

  • 1992: Storm Tracking - The First Step

    LEFT: OmniWxTrac, the first integrated storm tracker, premiering at KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City.

    By the end of 1992, Baron Services unveiled the result of its initial efforts: a ground-breaking storm tracking system called OmniWxTrac®, which for the first time integrated the only live and accurate data at the time: broadcasters' live radars, and the newly available strike-by-strike lightning from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN).

    With OmniWxTrac, a trained meteorologist could zoom into any storm cell on-the-fly, and designate a current storm location, direction and speed. The system would then automatically produce a storm track while identifying communities threatened, along with estimated times of arrival, in a marquee box.

    What was realized then which is equally true today, is that the average viewer is not very sophisticated. He does not know, nor even care to know, how we determine a threat. He has a difficult time fully understanding whether a threat will affect him. The more specific the broadcaster can be as to location, nearby landmarks, and time of threat measured within about the next 10 minutes, the greater the prospect he will be "called to action".

    The system was pretty crude by today's standards, but it nonetheless redefined severe weather coverage. For the first time, viewers had accurate, specific information on which communities were affected, and approximately when. This was a tremendous improvement over announcing a county-wide warning, and the ability to zoom into a close-up of a storm, which seems so simple now, was tremendously innovative.

    During the first year, we installed OmniWxTrac systems into six U.S. television stations: KFOR-TV and Mike Morgan; KJRH-TV and Gary Shore; WCCO-TV and Mike Fairborn; WMC-TV and Dave Brown; WBIR-TV and Martie Scholl, plus WAAY-TV, the station where I worked. In April of 1993, the system had its first big success in Tulsa, Okla. when Gary Shore projected, down to the minute, a truck stop in the path of a tornado—still a rare feat, even nowadays.

    The product saw more success during a major tornadic outbreak in Alabama the following month, and our course was set. However, we understood that users needed greater speed and usability, so by the mid-1990s, the DOS-based OmniWxTrac was redesigned for the Windows platform as FasTrac®, which is still in use at so many stations around the country today.

    LEFT: The OmniWxTrac system is used on-air by KJRH-TV to alert citizens of an approaching tornado. Lives were saved when Gary Shore, Chief Meteorologist at KJRH-TV, warned individuals at a truck stop about the danger.

  • 1995: Automated Storm Tracking

    While there is, and should be, a very close relationship between the National Weather Service and the broadcaster, responsibilities for the two are not the same. Broadcasters provide an important conduit between the National Weather Service and the general public, while the NWS is the official source of warnings. We operate under the idea that the broadcaster's role should be to supplement the NWS by anticipating dangerous situations and providing detailed advance information so that viewers are prepared to respond once a warning is issued. And there are a myriad of events which affect people's safety that would go unalerted, unless the broadcaster is on the air with anticipatory information. For instance, there is no such thing as a lightning warning, yet more people are killed each year from lightning than from tornadoes.

    It was all live radar in the days before Nexrad and in an effort to automate the "direction and speed" of storms, we developed a process to create a manual storm track, then come back at some time in the future, say 5 minutes, and update the center of threat. The system would measure the distance between the 2 points, note the time between storm tracks and then automatically redefine the direction and speed parameters. This first attempt at automating a storm track was also the basis for our first patent.

    We started saving radar sweeps in memory and developed another process where one could click on a current threat, backtrack a few sweeps, click on where the threat had been and the system would move back to present time and create an automated storm track with the computed direction and speed parameters. That was our second patent.

  • Mid-1990s: Enter NEXRAD

    In those days, few stations had their own live radar, even fewer had digitized radar, and fewer still were equipped with Doppler capability. Our problem was, FasTrac required a live, digitized radar feed. In order to expand our market, we learned how to digitize old analog radar, but soon ran out of them as well.

    We caught a break, though. NEXRAD was coming up to speed during this time, which allowed us to acquire decommissioned WSR-74C radars from the National Weather Service, retrofit them with Doppler capability, and provide the refurbished systems to the broadcast community. In retrospect, this was the beginning of our eventual radar division. When we ran out of the decommissioned 74-C's in the mid-90's, we finally decided to build our own from the ground up.

    LEFT: Company president Bob Baron, next to an early Baron radar installation.

    The WSR-88D systems that replaced the 74Cs provided the benefit of nationwide coverage and NIDS (NEXRAD Information Display System) processing for entire storms, but there were drawbacks, too; namely, a 5+ minute delay between lowest-level scans and relatively low resolution. We became a NEXRAD NIDS reseller, applied our storm tracking to the NIDS product and integrated NEXRAD with live radar for stations that had both.

    A lot could be done with the data, so we repackaged the NIDS attributes and made it available to broadcasters, applying our storm tracking technology and integrating NEXRAD for stations that had live radars. Which leads us to...

  • 1997: The Hidden Attributes Table

    LEFT: Baron Services' StormScan® made NIDS attributes available to broadcast meteorologists.

    Embedded in the NEXRAD Composite Reflectivity product was a "Combined Attribute Table" which listed, among other things, each identified storm, it's centroid, direction, speed, and whether a mesocyclone or Tornado Vortex Signature was associated. The table was never intended, and is still not intended for tracking tornadoes. In fact, the NWS never intended to make the table available. But there was still value to the TV met as far as situational awareness was concerned, so long as the user remembered that only the centroid, not the tornado was being plotted, and that the information was over five minutes old when received, 10 minutes old before the next Attributes arrived. We were the first to "discover" this imbedded table; to plot the centroid of each storm, and using the direction and speed attribute, plot an arrow depicting where the centroid would be over time. One could click on the resulting SCIT (Storm Cell Identification and Tracking) and produce a storm track. This Automated Storm Tracking through use of Storm Attributes became the basis for several Baron patents.

    Our Automated Attribute Storm Tracking, attempted to account for the 5 minute delay in the estimated time of arrival at communities by assuming the storm was 5 minutes further down the storm track and adjusting the storm track accordingly. Shifting the storm track to the center of rotation required manual input. We made it as quick and easy as possible with a one click solution and suggested the process be Standard Operating Procedure.

    We have moved on to far better means of tracking storms as will be discussed below, but unfortunately all competing automated storm tracking is attributes based and therefore extremely inaccurate and misleading, made even more inaccurate in some cases by efforts to work around our patents.

  • 1997: Shear Markers

    The introduction of the 3D VIPIR system in 1997 opened new avenues for counteracting the problems we'd encountered when NIDS tables were used for storm tracking, such as:

    • A focus on the centroid location rather than that of the actual threat
    • A 5-minute delay in receiving attribute information
    • Difficulty in relating the threat to the viewer (velocity product)

    The necessary improvements involved proprietary processing of every radial from every NEXRAD site in the country, a major effort for the company. The process compared every pixel of radial and storm relative velocity data to corresponding pixels. When the sum of an inbound pixel and a neighboring outbound pixel exceeded 50 knots, the system placed a circle, called a shear marker, over the site.


    ABOVE: Shear markers pinpoint the location of potential tornadic circulations with unprecedented precision.

    In order to measure the vertical development of storms, all four NEXRAD tilt levels then available were used, creating the potential for as many as six shear markers per radar site. That's a lot. So to help users identify from which product the shear was derived, we decided to place either one or two tick marks at the bottom of a shear marker to depict radial or storm relative shear, and two to four tick marks at the top of the shear marker to indicate at which tilt level the shear was detected.

    Also, we enabled users to set only specific types of shear markers to appear, which prevents the display from becoming confusingly cluttered, and allows meteorologists to focus on the areas of greatest concern.

    These things meant that off-air, there was instant identification of relative shear and vertical development dealing with the actual threat area rather than centroid, depicted instantly and for the first time. And on-air, by dropping all but low-level shear locks, users could instantly and accurately provide viewers with an easily understood area of threat.

    Unless there was ground truth, we urged users—and still do, actually—to tell viewers that the markers indicated a dangerous twisting of the winds, and not necessarily a tornado. If a tornado was present inside a storm, then the spinning marker identifies the likely location.

    We chose circular icons because a spinning circle on the map intuitively visualizes both the type of threat and its precise location, which made the shear markers a powerful automated tool. The vast majority of viewers still have zero understanding of Radial or Storm Relative Velocities, but a spinning circle instantly visualizes both the type of threat, a dangerous twisting of the winds, and its precise location. Also for the first time, broadcast meteorologists could click the automated attribute storm track, describe where the majority of rain and hail would be, then shift the SCIT to the center of the shear marker to describe where the greatest threat for tornadoes was.

    BELOW: A simple click of an NWS attribute combines NIDS data with Baron Services' storm tracking technology.

  • 1997: Addressing the 5-minute delay

    The production of NEXRAD attributes comes at the end of each volume scan, resulting in a 5-minute delay from the lowest-level scan. It is then another five-minute delay before the next update arrives.

    We discovered that, by processing the lowest-level velocity data immediately, without waiting until the entire volume scan had been packaged, the areas of shear could be defined in near real-time. We are still the only company to provide this 5 minute difference. There would still be a five-minute delay before the shear marker was updated, but meteorologists could switch between NEXRAD and their live radars, and point out how far the storm had moved since the previous track analysis.

  • 1997: The Baron Shear Product

    Many meteorologists, including myself, have a very difficult time detecting tornadic storms unaided. Spotting couplets through folding and vertical development is a challenge for anyone, particularly while delivering on-the-fly storm analysis that in a way that viewers understand. To this day, 99% of the viewership have no understanding of a velocity field. At best, they are told that somehow a green color next to a red color is a danger and to ignore all the other combinations of red and green. Could we develop a display that made sense to a casual viewer? That actually reinforced what the met was saying on air? That depicted areas of real threat in red, areas not at threat in green? I wouldn't have asked the question if we didn't have the answer.

    Our solution, an exclusive gate-to-gate shear product, became the basis of another patent. It shows each pixel of total shear—those below the 50-knot threshold in green, and those above the threshold in red.

    ABOVE: The image on the left shows radial velocity data (corrected for second-trip echoes and range folding) obtained during the Siren, WI, tornado of June, 2001. The image on the right shows the same moment, depicted using the exclusive Baron radial shear product.

    The shear products, one for radial shear and another for storm relative, were each obtained from the four elevations available to us. An added advantage was that shear data, unlike velocity, could be easily composited with shear data from another nearby radar.

    Displaying excessive wind shear as a time lapse, as seen below, has since been used regularly to show the probable damage path of tornadoes.

    BELOW: The tornado that impacted Siren, WI, on June 18, 2001 was accurately tracked by the Baron Shear product. Pictured above is a time lapse of Baron shear data as the storm tracked eastward.

  • 1997: The Baron Button

    The creation of the Baron Button has its origins in our work with the Baron shear product. It came from the need to clearly visualize every aspect of a storm quickly, ideal for the fast-paced nature of severe weather coverage.

    Typically, even on an uneventful day, on-air meteorologists have about 30 seconds to summarize weather events occurring in their viewing area. To support the need to identify all relevant weather threats as concisely as possible, we created a severe weather product incorporating a single composite of several important parameters:

    • Rainfall (reflectivity) exceeding 35 dbz (possible flooding)
    • The proprietary VIL Density product (possible hail)
    • Any shear above 50 knots (wind damage)

    The unique and proprietary composite was dubbed the Baron Button. With it, a meteorologist could quickly point out areas of probable flooding, hail and damaging winds, providing the specificity that drives viewers to take cover.


    ABOVE: Three severe weather parameters in one display. The Baron Button delivers threat analysis instantly and accurately.

  • 2000: Baron SCITs

    National Weather Service SCITs (Storm Cell Identification and Tracking) are designed to identify the storm centroid, and provide the ability to identify the same storm in the next 5-minute volume scan. As opposed to the spinning circles, the SCITs are the arrows.

    Use of the centroid location is helpful, so long as the meteorologist bears in mind that the SCIT location is always 5 minutes old to begin with. Additionally, the SCIT does not necessarily represent the exact location of hail, and rarely the location of gate-to-gate shear.

    Storm tracking via use of the Mesocyclone or TVS SCITs is subject to substantial error according to the weather service's own research, yet this remains the only method of storm tracking other than the Baron algorithms.

    At Baron Services, we process and provide two types of proprietary SCITs: Severe Storms and Shear. Both are processed within the first two cuts of the atmosphere, so they're available almost five minutes earlier than NWS attributes. With Baron SCITs, storm direction and speed are determined by movement of the feature, rather than the centroid, which improves the accuracy.

    Severe Storm SCITs focus on finding hail cores. Shear SCITs, meanwhile, are focused on identifying lowest-level gate-to-gate shear. They appear when there is sufficient depth and longevity to suspect actual tornadic development. They do not appear without defined vertical development. By comparison, the circular shear markers only appear when there is defined gate-to-gate shear.

    Tracking storms, identifying communities at risk and providing an estimated time of arrival based on Baron's Severe and Shear SCITs continues to be a significant tool for advising viewers of impending threat.

    ABOVE: Baron SCIT technology, at work during the devastating Oklahoma City tornado of May 3, 1999. The accuracy of Baron SCIT technology is evident when paired with an automated storm track and an overlay of the tornado's movement and strength, as determined by the NWS damage survey.


    ABOVE: Highly accurate ETAs and other data are accessible via Baron SCITs.

  • 2000: The Go Sequence

    Viewer comprehension is always a top priority, and one reason why broadcast meteorology is such a consistent challenge. We noticed how some of our customers, including John McLaughlin at KCCI and Jay Trobec at KELO, would zoom out to an entire viewing area, resetting the view so viewers could get their bearings, before zooming back into the storm and tracking the most dangerous cells. The technique worked well, so we incorporated a way to do this automatically, called the Go Sequence.

    LEFT: The Baron attribute table uses proprietary processing to track storms accurately and estimate a range of storm parameters.

    The Go Sequence provides an automated overview of the entire viewing area, enhancing situational awareness and making on-the-fly tracking of multiple cells easier. The meteorologist simply clicks the Go Sequence button, and the system zooms into the strongest storm cells in order, zooming out to the viewing area, then zooming back into the next strongest storm. This simple addition allows meteorologists to instantly identify areas of greatest concern, while helping viewers determine the location of those threats relative to their homes.

  • Early 2000s: Additional Storm Track Improvements

    Over time, Baron Services has continued to refine its processes, adjusting the time of storm arrival by referencing the exact time of the lowest-level data, and applying it appropriately to ensure accurate and timely severe weather coverage.

    The storm track itself has become dynamic in size, responsive to the degree of uncertainty about the storm's exact location. For instance, gate-to-gate shear identified very close to the radar has a smaller area that can be impacted than the same shear located at some distance (and elevation) from the radar. The track is designed to suggest the outermost areas of possible touchdown.

    Additionally, a helpful note for VIPIR users: in an angled view, shear markers indicate the size of the radar beam where wind shear has been detected. Users can identify the nearest radar from the shortest marker, as seen below.


    ABOVE: Different levels of shear markers.

  • 2005: MicroTrac™

    In 2005, VIPIR gained a new localized storm tracking ability, the patented and patent-pending MicroTrac, which was designed to maximize the recognition opportunities presented by the advent of 1-meter aerial mapping. The system zooms into the base of each storm and pans slowly across the storm track's center line, allowing the user to display instantly recognizable landmarks such as schools and hospitals, in context to the storm.


    ABOVE: MicroTrac is a great tool for hyper-local storm coverage, particularly when paired with 1-meter aerial mapping. Beginning with any SCIT-based storm track, the capability automatically zooms into a street-level view of the community, showing specific landmarks—schools and churches, for example—likely to be affected.

  • 2007: Shear Sequence

    The Go Sequence automatically defines the most dangerous storms using the Baron attribute table. MicroTrac zooms down to street-level so the viewer has a much clearer understanding of which storms will be affecting them. A combination of the two capabilities resulted in the Shear Sequence, which gave users quick, one-click access to a detailed view of imminent conditions, instantly and automatically.

  • 2008: Baron Tornado Index (BTI™)

    Recently, we've turned our attention to a fourth area of focus: the prediction of severe weather events, which would precede the detection/dissemination/response process already in place. The first product from this new area is called the Baron Tornado Index, or BTI™.

    Incorporating the most advanced mesoscale models with radar data, the patented and patent-pending Baron Tornado Index continuously monitors storm cell activity, and produces a ranking on a 1-10 scale on the likelihood of tornadic development occurring in those cells. Users access BTI values through shear markers and SCITs (shear markers are now color-coded for intensity, while each SCIT carries a BTI value). A simple click of the SCIT reveals the BTI value.

    BELOW: BTI image of the tornado that struck downtown Atlanta, GA in 2008.

  • The Future: Enhanced Accuracy and Consumer-Driven Weather

    In the years to come, Baron Services will continue the pursuit of weather technologies built around the four concepts of prediction, detection, dissemination and response. As demonstrated throughout this history, an intrinsic part of the Baron Services mission is making detailed weather analysis streamlined and simplified for the average viewer, your consumer.


    ABOVE: Baron Services headquarters in Huntsville, AL

    Our shear-derived data products are good examples of our approach to consumer-driven weather, because they break down very complex meteorology into a digestible, easy to understand package that instantly illustrates sophisticated weather situations for the average person. The accuracy and specificity we provide gives us a good chance that they'll be called to action when the time comes by seeking shelter, or informing others in harm's way.


    ABOVE: A committed team of meteorologists working 24/7 ensures data quality for Baron customers in our state-of-the-art Weather Ops Center.

    Of course, there are still areas that escape our ability to achieve 100% accuracy. Distance from the radar, storm movement beyond 10 minutes, especially for "right movers", and drawing the fine line between a funnel and a touchdown, for example, will pose continuing challenges. However, as we continue to mature the new BTI, I am optimistic that increasingly accurate results will be achieved.

    BELOW: Close-up of the monitors in the Weather Ops Center.