by Leslie Irwin, OAR Office of Communications
The afternoon of May 20, 2013, an EF5 tornado over a mile wide, with winds over 200 mph, developed and ravaged a 17-mile path through the town of Moore, OK. The National Weather Service was able to issue a warning 16 minutes in advance, urging anyone in the tornado’s path to seek shelter. The resulting storm left 25 dead and 377 injured, and we can only hope that improving forecasting and warning capabilities will help to prevent such losses in the future. Dr. Pam Heinselman, with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), is doing exactly that.
A tornado touches down Wyoming. Credit: NOAA
Less than ten miles away from the Moore outbreak, in Norman, OK, Heinselman was frantically working with the National Weather Radar Testbed (NWRT) phased-array radar (PAR), balancing caution at the proximity to the dangerous storm, and excitement as the PAR scanned the storm every 60 seconds – four minutes faster than the Doppler radar used for the warning system. The data collected from these scans will contribute to increased understanding of what is going on as these storms develop, as key radar signatures within storms like this currently evolve faster than sampling occurs.
NSSL's Phased-array radar can scan a storm system every minute, allowing researchers to track storm development and provide better warning forecasts. Credit: NOAA
This research is well suited for Heinselman, who grew up with a constant curiosity about what was going on with the weather around her, wondering “what makes one storm nothing more than a shower compared to others that produce so much wind and lightning?”
Heinselman is now actively involved with an effort to develop PAR and related tools for forecasters. NSSL’s Phased-Array Radar Innovative Sensing Experiment (PARISE) invites NWS forecasters to assess the rapid-scan PAR capabilities. Forecasters experience first-hand how the reduced scanning times can improve their ability to understand the evolution of severe weather precursors and issue accurate forecasts and warnings sooner. This testing also allows the forecasters to provide feedback, so that Heinselman’s team, along with the engineers and software developers, can advance capabilities of the PAR system to meet users’ needs. In another facit of her work, she also works closely with and advises University of Oklahoma graduate students in the School of Meteorology.
"Communicating this research has been crucial in raising awareness of the need for improvements in storm forecasting capabilities."
It’s working with this wide variety of people that keeps Heinselman excited about her job.
“I like seeing the development of my research from the ground up—I couldn’t do any of it without the engineers that develop the radar equipment, the software developers that create the platforms I conduct my monitoring and analyses from, and the students who keep the ideas and inspiration flowing.”
It goes without saying that there will be certain levels of uncertainty when working with the weather, and storm monitoring and prediction research requires a lot of flexibility. But Heinselman was ready for that. What surprised her most was opportunities to give interviews, which she has found she enjoys.
Pam Heinselman analyzes scans from a storm event with her students. Credit: NOAA
“Communicating this research has been crucial in raising awareness of the need for improvements in storm forecasting capabilities, as well as promoting the safety of the communities affected in these areas.”
Dr. Heinselman will continue to push for excellence and improvement in radar scanning capabilities so that forecasters can predict a storm’s next move, and people can move out of its way in time.
Heinselman has been a research scientist at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma since 2009. She received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Saint Louis University and her Ph.D. in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma. In 2009 she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.