The Magic of RADAR

140 years has brought us to today

Doppler Radar
Doppler Radar

RADAR and how it works – RADAR wasn’t originally for tracking rain and thunderstorms and, in fact, when Heinrich Hertz first produced radio waves in the 1880s, U.S. Navy researchers discovered they could detect ships with these pulses of energy! How does that happen? Well, a RADAR beam is exactly that: a pulse of energy and it bounces off objects. One easy pulse of energy to understand is light, so imagine a flashlight pointed at a mirror and the light bounces off the mirror. You’re also familiar with sound waves bouncing in a cave and creating an echo.

RADAR beams bouncing can tell you where objects are, thus RADAR detection. In World War II, both the Allied forces and Germany used these beams to detect airplanes. The beams bounced back and the radar scope would show where the airplanes were located. And, guess what, they also discovered that precipitation ALSO returned those beams and they could see where rain and thunderstorms were located!

So what to do with all these radars after the war ended? Give them to the weather guys!! Here is KPRC 2’s late Doug Johnson operating one of our early radars:

Doug Johnson in the early 60s

So the television news RADARs you see send out an electromagnetic beam, a radio wave, that bounces back from objects and creates an image on the radar scope. This is what you are used to seeing with different colors indicating the intensity of the rain:

RADAR indicating where the storms are

Of course, we can detect a lot more than just rain and thunderstorms like birds migrating, cold fronts, wind shifts, tornadoes--anything that makes the RADAR beam bounce back, or reflect (like that flashlight beam off the mirror). And this Friday morning (1/24/2020) the RADARs caught the debris from the explosion that occurred. Meteorologist Jeff Lindner posted this image on his Twitter feed:

Circled is the Debris from the explosion

The ability to “see” into the atmosphere has taken a century of scientists and has improved our weather warning system to a point of saving untold numbers of lives. Thanks, Mr. Hertz, for the original Radio Aided Detection And Ranging, or RADAR.


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About the Author:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.