The large white bubble of a dome is a strange sight in the stretches of farmland and county roads north of Greeley. Towering over five stories high, the dome of one of the most advanced weather research systems in the world may appear to a passersby as something akin to a giant igloo.
The system, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by CSU researchers, resides in the dome, which is big enough for the technology to maneuver 360 degrees around and flip vertically, scanning the skies above — something rare in operational radar systems.
Yet the most exceptional aspect of the CHILL Radar is its advanced dual polarization technology, which allows meteorologists and scientists to indicate where hailstones melt into water and better forecast the weather and send out warnings.
“The next generation of technologies is being introduced in the TV market,” said Chandrasekar V. Chandra, an electrical and computer engineering professor.
Chandra said in the year 2009 170 dual polarization radars will be adapted by weather stations across the nation.
The CHILL Radar Facility near Greeley can detect a hail stone 10 miles away and is so sensitive that bugs flying over Denver can interfere with the weather information that gets transmitted back to researchers at the CHILL facility.
Chandra said the research CSU students and professors are able to acquire through the CHILL Radar is crucial to the continued advancement of dual polarization systems and weather forecasting.
“This is our research platform,” Chandra said.
Chandra is primarily interested in the advancing radar technology and the CHILL facility allows for better research on how to improve weather radar technology and release new technologies to the nation and globe.
Non-CSU researchers, whose proposals are approved, can also use the radar and its sophisticated antenna for recording atmospheric activity to aid in their research.
Unlike radar systems used by the National Weather Service, the CHILL Radar serves as a research tool, meaning it is not required to run 24 hours a day.
When the tornadoes swept through Weld County on May 22, the CHILL Radar was not running because research was not taking place.
While it did get images of the storm as it passed over I-25 toward the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, it took nearly 20 minutes to boot the radar; so, scientists were unable to get images when the storms were in their first stages.
“The radar was not all the way functional that day,” said Patrick Kennedy, the CHILL facility manager and a meteorologist. “We saw the latter part of [the tornado].”
Research continues despite the missed opportunity over two months ago, and Kennedy, also the managing technician, can only hope poor timing will not be against them again.
Because the CHILL is intended for research, researchers are not obligated to act as any type of warning system.
However, Kennedy said, through their weather and radar technology research, the National Weather Service could potentially benefit from their findings, more efficiently detect inclement weather and issue warnings faster.
The original system was constructed in the 1970s by the universities of Chicago and Illinois, which when combined give the system its name. In 1990, The National Science Foundation brought the CHILL to Colorado after deeming CSU the appropriate university out of the many that competed for the equipment.
In February, a new antenna was installed to clear up fuzzy signals that plagued research and increase observational accuracy.
Now, technicians and meteorologists like Kennedy are able to research weather patterns and thunderstorms without problems.
The old antenna was structured in a way that the equipment interfered with the radar’s ability to clearly distinguish signals from the atmosphere. The new antenna has no assembly equipment in its path and can focus its scanning up to nearly 200 miles away with almost zero interference, even avoiding the dome structure.
“As far as the radar is concerned, [the dome] is transparent,” Kennedy said.
Without the dome, the CHILL would be exposed and possibly damaged by the very storms it’s trying to track.
Most radar systems do not have vertical measurement capabilities. With its unique dual axis, Kennedy said the CHILL is able to measure raindrops both vertically and horizontally and can get a better idea if movements in the sky indicate hail or flash floods.
Other potential research studies could also help in discovering how storms become electrified, how raindrops evolve and how atmospheric conditions that cause airplane icing develop.
By scanning activity in the atmosphere and the weather’s impact on the ground, Kennedy, Dr. Chandra and other researchers hope to get closer to establishing a premium system for the prediction and detection of weather patterns.
Staff writer Kaeli West can be reached at email@example.com.