Cable channel Bay News 9 plans to unveil a sophisticated new radar Monday that is designed to provide a much wider and clearer picture of weather troubles surrounding Tampa Bay.
The new weather radar, called Klystron 9, is one of several equipment upgrades that Bright House Networks' all-news station has installed in the past 18 months. Chief meteorologist Mike Clay says the overall system is unique, "hands down better than any TV station has.
"There are countries that will come to buy this radar," he said.
Radar equipment is a key issue for local news teams because good weather forecasts help drive ratings.
Taken together, Bay News 9 officials say, the package of recent improvements will help them find storms and other weather patterns earlier, and with more precision, improving their forecasts. Clay said the system is powerful enough to see weather forming behind rainstorms, something many conventional radars can not do. He said he also has seen some distant weather patterns that National Weather Service radar has not picked up.
The station believes it has become the first TV station in the United States to use the type of weather radar called klystron. And it is among a half-dozen to use a technique called "dual polarization," which provides a sharper, clearer picture of distant storms.
The National Weather Service installed klystron radars nationwide years ago, but does not yet have dual polarization.
Here's a closer look at the weather radar system of Bay News 9, which has a news sharing partnership with the St. Petersburg Times.
• The klystron radar. The newest part of the system is the klystron radar that Bay News 9 purchased from Baron Services of Huntsville, Ala., installed in November and is using now.
Klystron radars are known for providing an especially clear and reliable radar signal, compared to the more widely used magnetron radars, said Kevin Kloesel, a meteorology professor and radar expert at the University of Oklahoma.
Kloesel said klystrons are "kind of the Lexus of radars," although he stressed that magnetron radars also can be greatly enhanced with new technologies.
Clay said the station is able to track wind direction up to 150 miles away with the new system, compared to 50 or 75 miles away with conventional radars. "This is unheard of for a TV station to have that kind of range," Clay said.
The National Weather Service paid more than $1-million each for its klystrons when they were purchased in the early 1990s. Terry Dolan, vice president and general manager of Bay News 9, declined to say how much the station paid for the system.
• Dual polarization. Conventional weather radars send out thousands of horizontal pulses of radio waves, which bounce off something in the distance such as raindrops and return to an antenna. With dual polarization, the radar sends out vertical as well as horizontal pulses, which paints a more three-dimensional picture of the weather. Bay News 9 began using dual polarization in October 2007.
The National Weather Service plans to obtain dual polarization within a couple years because it "will give us much better indications of what's going on inside the storm," said Dave Chaffin, a Tampa-based radar specialist with the service.
• Pulse compression. Pulse compression is a technique for modifying the radio waves used in radars that greatly improves their performance.
"It's like building a higher-powered transmitter. It also increases the resolution," said V. Chandrasekar, a Colorado State University professor who has worked with Bay News 9 on this project.
• The transmitter. The system's 1.25-megawatt transmitter is especially powerful, Bay News 9 officials said. "It allows us to punch through heavy rain," Clay said. "It allows us to see through that and see what's on the other side."
Kloesel, the Oklahoma professor, is not connected with the Bay News 9 project. Based on a reporter's description of the equipment the station has acquired, he said "continuing education is going to be critical" in getting the most from such complex technology.
Clay agreed. Although the whole system is up and running, he said the station's meteorologists already are evaluating and fine-tuning their new system, with input from the manufacturer. "We're going to be learning," he said.