What is a Weather Radar?

Harriette Halepis

Weather radar is used to measure and calculate precipitation. This type of radar is used all over the world in order to detect incoming weather. Modern weather radar is now quite advanced, though it wasn't always so precise. Thanks to a simple observation that occurred during World War II, weather can now be observed accurately.

Meteorologists use weather radar to help locate and forecast storms.
Meteorologists use weather radar to help locate and forecast storms.

World War II radar operators noticed that radar signals made a different sound when the weather was about to change. If rain, snow, sleet, or other precipitation occurred, returned radar noise was altered according to the type of precipitation that was in the air. Taking these weather observations with them after the war, former military radar operators began to experiment with various types of weather radar.

It is important to pay attention to forecasts in order to better prepare for weather advisories.
It is important to pay attention to forecasts in order to better prepare for weather advisories.

From 1950 to 1980, reflectivity radars were widely used amongst meteorologists. These radars were able to measure the positioning and strength of incoming precipitation, but they could not measure the velocity of air particles. Velocity was soon added to weather radar equipment when the Doppler radar system was invented.

Today, most meteorologists use Doppler radar to detect precipitation, though this for of radar is constantly being updated. Meteorologists can now differentiate between two types of precipitation that is seemingly similar. Thus, today's weather forecasts can accurately predict either rain or snow, though earlier radar systems could not separate the two forms of precipitation.

Weather radar systems have proved to be extremely useful when it comes to thunderstorm tracking. Modern technology allows meteorologists to track the intensity and severity of an incoming thunderstorm. This has allowed for large populations to move out of the way of a particularly treacherous storm.

Aside from tracking weather on the ground, commercial airlines also use weather radar to assist pilots with aircraft maneuvering. Since airplanes move in all directions, it helps pilots to know when and where weather is occurring. These radar detectors are attached to the nose of an airplane, and they help pilots keep an airplane headed in the right direction no matter what the present weather may be.

Most countries presently have national radar centers that detect the weather in and around a certain territory. Covering such a large expanse of land is somewhat difficult, though contemporary radar advancements make such a task possible. By combining information taken from numerous radars, national weather centers are able to determine weather that may affect various parts of a country, or the country as a whole.

Commercial airlines use weather radar to assist pilots with aircraft maneuvering.
Commercial airlines use weather radar to assist pilots with aircraft maneuvering.

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Discussion Comments


I will admit that I get excited when the local weather radar indicates snow or any frozen precipitation. Those little pink and white blotches that move across the screen into my county thrill me, because I live in a region that rarely sees winter snow.

As a child, I got to stay home from school whenever approaching snow or sleet was picked up by radar. The schools would close, because they were afraid of bus accidents or students slipping and falling in the parking lot.

So, the pink and white weather warnings will always be associated with happy times in my mind. Since I work from home, I am able to take my own snow days now, and I can spend them sledding with my husband and dogs.


My parents were children back in the days before advanced weather radar could be used to predict storms. Since most people didn't have televisions back then, anyway, they probably wouldn't have known if it had.

My mother hates storm shelters because she had to spend so much time in one as a young child. Every time it thundered, her mother would insist that they stay in the shelter until the storm passed.

If I didn't have any weather radar to go by, I probably would want to stay in there, too. It would be terrible to be awakened by a surprise tornado and have no time left to take shelter.


@lighth0se33 – I always get scared when I hear that Doppler weather radar has indicated a possible tornado. This is because it is usually right.

Even when no funnel cloud forms, just knowing that it's up there scares me to death. I lived on a street that did get hit by a tornado, and sure enough, the weatherman said that Doppler radar had pointed it out just minutes before it touched down.

I hate living in tornado alley, but I am glad that such good technology exists. Doppler radar has saved many lives. That extra minute or two of warning is time enough to get in the basement or a safe room.


Every time I watch the weather forecast, Doppler radar is mentioned. The meteorologists at my local television station rely on it to warn viewers about floods, thunderstorms, and potential tornadoes.

On stormy nights, the meteorologist will interrupt regular programming. He will always say that Doppler radar indicated rotation in a certain area.

He is quick to point out that just because Doppler radar picked up on rotation, this doesn't mean an actual tornado is on the ground. It does mean that there is spinning inside the clouds that could easily produce a funnel that could touch down in that area.

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