Radar A Military Tool for Meteorology

Since the 1930s, British scientists had been working on ground-based radar techniques. The very long wavelengths they employed combined with very broad beams made them difficult to use and provided very little directional accuracy. By 1940, the invention of the magnetron had provided a technique for creating very short wavelengths. Sir Henry Tizard (1885-1959), a prominent British physicist, showed his colleagues in the United States and Canada how the magnetron could enhance the usefulness of radar as the race to create a military tool that would allow Allied forces to "see" incoming ships and aircraft intensified. The scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Radiation Lab, impressed with the potential of the magnetron, adopted its use in their radar development program and were soon working on building microwave radar.

These shorter wavelengths allowed users to locate their own and enemy combat forces with much greater accuracy, but microwave radars had their own set of problems. Whereas old radars had been able to "look through" rain and snow, the new microwave radars returned images of rain and snow that masked the presence of ships and aircraft. On February 20, 1941, a radar team tracked a rain shower some 2.5 miles (7 km) off the English coast—the first confirmed use of "weather radar."

Hearing this news, wartime meteorologists were quick to exploit the use of microwave radar to track storms, especially those that could be hazardous to ships and aircraft. Although the principal efforts in radar advancement during the war were aimed at locating enemy assets, work continued on radar specifically designed for weather forecasting purposes. The British Meteorological Office established a radar research site near London before the end of the war, and the Canadian Army Operational Research Group carried out Project Stormy Weather in 1944, making time-lapse photographs of radar returns to study storm movement. Radar was especially helpful in tropical regions because observational data were extremely limited and rain showers were very heavy, providing excellent radar images. Furthermore, heavy rain showers were a flight hazard for the smaller, lighter World War II aircraft. In busy flight areas such as the Panama Canal Zone, U.S. Army Air Corps meteorologists used radar to locate and track the movement of heavy showers, allowing pilots to avoid them while flying into, and out of, the area.

In the immediate postwar years, MIT's Weather Radar Project concerned itself not only with improving equipment, but with using radar returns to determine precipitation processes and internal storm structure. As weather radar became more sophisticated, researchers used these instruments to study thunderstorms, and forecasters—who learned to recognize the distinctive patterns made by thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes—used them to guide aviators away from dangerous flight areas.

The first specially designed weather radar, built by Raytheon Corporation for the U.S. Air Force's Air Weather Service, appeared in 1949. In the half century since its introduction, weather radar has become an important tool for meteorological prediction and atmospheric research.

This radar image shows a frontal thunderstorm near Spring Lake, New Jersey, on July 16, 1944. (NOAA Photo Library)

with the influx of new meteorologists, would be critical to rapid disciplinary advances after 1950.

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