Public Release: 

New Tornado Detection Technology Being Tested

Georgia Institute of Technology

A tornado in Hall County, Ga., in the spring of 1998 caused major damage and claimed several lives.

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Testing has begun on the next generation of tornado forecasting technology that could increase warning time by as much as 50 percent in north Georgia.

Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are testing and optimizing the National Severe Storms Laboratory's (NSSL) Next Generation Warning Decision Support System (NG-WDSS) during the 1999 and 2000 tornado seasons. Though the test area is north Georgia, the study results will be applicable throughout the state.

The NG-WDSS was installed at the National Weather Service's Peachtree City office earlier this month, and two more systems will be deployed in GTRI laboratories by the end of June.

"We will be optimizing the system to reflect Georgia's environment," said Gene Greneker, a research scientist who is heading GTRI's recently established Severe Storms Research Center (SSRC). "Tornadoes in Georgia and elsewhere in the Southeast are often short-lived events. They can come and go in 10 minutes, as opposed to an hour in Kansas. As a result, the radar signal processing may need to be set slightly different from those that were developed for the Great Plains states where the NG-WDSS was first developed and tested."

Optimizing the system will involve researchers in collecting storm data and determining if changing parameters in the NG-WDSS algorithms will make it work better in Georgia.

Number of Tornadoes by County in Georgia, 1950-1998.

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NG-WDSS provides a set of tools that help forecasters make more efficient, effective and timely decisions on warning the public of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods. The system includes advanced image processing, artificial intelligence, neural network and other algorithms that use Doppler radar data. The data is integrated with other weather sensor data to guide forecasters. Another important part of the system is how it displays and presents information to forecasters.

The NSSL has successfully tested NG-WDSS in various parts of the country since 1996, when it operated as an advanced system at Peachtree City during the Olympics. Because of the expense of deploying the NG-WDSS, it will not be fully implemented across the country for another five to seven years, Greneker said.

But in Georgia, funding from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Georgia General Assembly, allowed the SSRC to contract with NSSL to deploy the NG-WDSS systems installed in Peachtree City and at Georgia Tech. Bell South Business Systems is also providing funds, which will pay for high speed data transmission lines.

An initial one year of funding for SSRC, a three-year project, followed recommendations made last year by former Gov. Zell Miller's Task Force on Warning and Communication. Miller formed the task force after severe storms claimed 23 lives in Georgia in 1998. Gov. Roy Barnes has pledged continued support for the project.

Forecasters and emergency management officials believe that better warning systems, such as the NG-WDSS, could lower those death tolls. In addition to improving warning time, NG-WDSS should result in fewer false alarms.

"False alarms desensitize the public to valid warnings," Greneker said. "While the NG-WDSS will not totally eliminate the false alarm problem, test data shows that it can help the problem."

When the NG-WDSS is installed in GTRI's laboratories, researchers will begin to test the system, Greneker said. Part of that effort will include collecting data in the aftermath of tornadoes. "This information will help us determine how much warning the NG-WDSS provided before the tornado touched down," Greneker explained.

So far this tornado season, researchers have not been able to conduct many tests because of the few number of severe storms. "Other than the tornadoes in Vienna and Metter, it's been a very quiet tornado season (usually January to May) this year," Greneker said. "So it's given us a breather to get the equipment installed. By next spring, we will be ready to really test the (NG-WDSS) system."

Meanwhile, the SSRC is proceeding with other projects to improve severe weather forecasting in Georgia. One study will be measuring electrical discharge from cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes. Researchers believe that increasing amounts of electrical discharge indicate that a tornado could be forming, Greneker explained.

When GEMA chose GTRI as the site for the SSRC, it outlined its mission for the center. That mission is to:

  • serve as a quick-response information resource for weather and emergency management agencies.
  • become an advanced prototype facility.
  • develop and maintain a database of severe storms dynamics.
  • develop a plan for expanding Georgia's severe storm spotter network with help from two-way radio-equipped public safety personnel.
  • provide real-time information regarding tornado development or ground track coordinates to the National Weather Service.
  • determine whether tornadoes occur in certain areas of the state more often than others. If so, forecasting resource improvements would concentrate on these "tornado alleys."
  • work with agencies to educate Georgians about floods and hurricanes; and develop methods to quickly transmit flood and hurricane effects data to county level emergency managers.
  • provide information on and evaluate advanced communications techniques for GEMA. These efforts would improve the response and transmission times for sending warning data to emergency managers.
  • develop a library of the latest knowledge on severe storms, including theories on their formation and trends in storm occurrence.
Availability of funding for the years 2000 and 2001 will determine whether the SSRC can fully meet these goals, Greneker added.


For technical information, contact:

Gene Greneker, GTRI, 770-528-7744;

Pamela Swanson, GEMA, 404-635-7000

Georgia Tech Research News and Research Horizons magazine, along with high resolution JPEG images, can be found on the Web at

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also be posting a news release related to the NG-WDSS project in Georgia. See it at

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