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On the euphemism of "Greater" parts of America, smaller tornado warning polygons, and the case for spending some public money on increased weather radar coverage
■ Nature, unfortunately, cannot be tamed. It can only be observed, reported upon, and defended against. The United States benefits enormously from a sophisticated meteorological profession, which blends the efforts of the public sector, the private sector, and the academic sector into a truly remarkable learning community.
■ But in the instant, when severe weather is actively taking place, there is little that can substitute for quality data collection and analysis. Thus it remains frustrating that so many events -- including the latest -- take place where radar coverage is badly limited by geography.
■ There are all kinds of places -- many in the Midwest and in other tornado-prone areas -- where tens of thousands of people live far from the nearest life-saving radar coverage. We can't do anything about the curvature of the Earth, which limits what radar can detect close to the ground the farther away the beam is being sent.
■ The map is actually a bit unsettling if you frequently spend time in the less-covered areas. Lots of places have no quality coverage below 6,000 feet (or even 10,000). That's a problem, because a tornado by definition takes place at ground level. The rotating column can often be detected higher up, but distance corrodes data quality.
■ Major population centers are often close to good coverage, but there are non-trivial numbers of people (often living in places euphemistically called "greater", as in "Greater Minnesota" or "Greater Nebraska") whose homes and schools and churches are not-infrequently in the path of damaging or deadly storms.
■ Moreover, the lower population density that generally contributes towards these places going with lesser radar coverage also contributes directly to there being fewer available trained spotters and other essential emergency resources. The less precise the incoming data -- whether from radar or from human sources -- the greater the likelihood of warning error. Smaller warning areas are intended to help increase public confidence in warnings -- the idea being that fewer false alarms will leave people more likely to take action when they are specifically warned.
■ The equipment (and staffing) required to increase the density of high-quality radar coverage for these areas would cost money, but America is a rich country. And while people in large metropolitan areas may be satisfied with their radar coverage at home, people ought to be reminded that most of us at least sometimes travel away from home, either for work or for pleasure.
■ New sites wouldn't have to be as sophisticated or as comprehensive as the existing ones to be helpful. Moblie radar trucks have even proven themselves as valuable scientific tools. As a means of protecting people equitably and potentially saving lives, adding more coverage to the national radar infrastructure seems like an overwhelming case for greater public investment, and one that only grows more justified with every new tornado disaster in "greater" parts of the country.