If you've ever had a television or radio show interepted by a severe weather warning, the alert originated here: the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Situated on the Oklahoma University campus, the National Weather Center is actually a conglomeration of a number of government, educational and commercial weather monitoring organizations. Here in the middle of the Oklahoma plains, the staff at the weather center and surrounding buildings monitors weather conditions across the country, and even on the high seas. Among the many facilities in this large, high-tech building is the Storm Prediction Center, a series of rooms outfitted with dozens of radar maps and computer monitors that experts use to keep track of potentially severe weather patterns.
"The Storm Prediction Center is the source of every severe storm watch or tornado watch in the country," said Kevin Kloesel, who guided me around the weather center today. "The ration of monitors to people in this building is about 10 to 1. We have about 550 people working here, and more than 5,000 monitors."
The center has much more storm-tracking equipment, as well. Kevin walked me through the vehicle bay, where storm chasing vans have been outfitted with instruments to follow the tornadoes that are common in this area of the country in late spring. We also saw a massive mobile radar truck (pictured above), which can be deployed around the region to capture low-altitude radar images that stationary units can't always detect.
When groups tour the weather center, they get to see many of these same areas, and learn about how the agencies working there take advantage of the work of Oklahoma University meteorology students, whose original research at the center has lead to significant forecasting breakthroughs. Other highlights include a 360-degree spherical projection screen (pictured below), where global weather radar images from the last 30 days are on a mesmerizing moving display.
Leaving the weather center today, I had a whole new appreciation for the innovation and the hard work that goes into forecasting the weather, and into warning people across the country about dangerous weather situations.