Today thunderstorms and tornadoes are routinely tracked using weather radar, and in fact anyone with a computer or smart phone can pull up the latest radar images for their area. As you might surmise, this wasn't always the case. After World War II surplus radars were being used to study thunderstorms and precipitation. The Illinois State Water Survey, a state agency on the University of Illinois campus, was in the beginning years of a weather research program at the time, a program that continues today. It was during a project conducted by the Water Survey that the now classic "hook echo" radar signature radar was first discovered and photographed in detail. As with many scientific discoveries, it was a serendipitous event.
|Meteorology building at Willard Airport and the radar used|
to detect the hook echo.
|The first hook echo identified and photographed on radar.|
Although Staggs recognized the unusual nature of the radar echo and the possibility of a tornado, positive identification was not made at the time of the radar tracking. Only when the radar film was developed the next day did the scientists realize that the distinctive hook echo was the signature of the tornado reported the afternoon before. Field surveys confirmed the tornado, which was eventually rated an F3.
The tornado moved east and dissipated just over the Indiana state line. It had a path of about 54 miles, and destroyed eight homes and damaged 72 others. There was one fatality in Vermilion County, Illinois from the storm.
|A view of the tornado on April 9, 1953 taken from near Royal, Illinois.|
Tornado photograph taken by Ernie Kienietz, provided by Scott C. Truett
The original report on this historic event is available online, and contains a description of the weather conditions that day, information on the weather radar, and the results of the field survey of the tornado damage, including photographs. It's a fascinating piece of weather history. You can read it at the following link.
Study of an Illinois Tornado Using Radar, Synoptic Weather and Field Survey Data, Illinois State Water Survey Report of Investigation 22, Urbana, IL by F.A. Huff, H.W. Hiser, and S.G. Bigler. 1954
In the report's conclusion, the authors of the report speculated that with more collection of tornado radar data, "...it may be possible to establish radar storm warning systems in tornado areas to reduce loss of lives, and to some extent property damage." This discovery did, in fact, launch a national research program aimed at tornado detection by radar. In 1962 the National Severe Storms Laboratory was formed out of the National Severe Storms Project, conducting research on the detection of storms with radar. Today, there are 164 weather radar sites across the U.S. that scan the skies 24/7.