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National Weather Service Northern Indiana marks 25 years of operations

SYRACUSE, Ind. (WANE) – March 17th, 1998. This was the date the National Weather Service Northern Indiana office began operating in Syracuse, Indiana. Fast forward to 2023, the office serves a population of about 2.1 million people over 15,875 square miles and covers 37 counties in two different time zones (Eastern and Central Time).

Before the NWS Northern Indiana office was founded 25 years ago, Fort Wayne and South Bend had their own offices. The Fort Wayne office had been operating since May of 1911. The consolidation of the two offices into one office was the result of the NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring (MAR). This happened in the 1990s and resulted in many changes to the observational tools available, the layout of offices across the country, and staffed all offices with degreed meteorologists and hydrologists. The plan was largely a result of the April 1974 outbreak of 150 tornadoes that touched down in 13 states and killed 314 people.

Meteorologist Todd Holsten has been at the office for all of the past 25 years. He was one of the original forecasters picked to join the consolidated Fort Wayne and South Bend office in Syracuse. A new WSR-88D radar was built in a location that was equidistant between Fort Wayne and South Bend and led to the creation of the new forecast office.

When Holsten arrived in October of 1997, there was nothing onsite yet. It was not until March 17th, 1998, that operations began in two trailers onsite connected in a T-formation. The early days were pretty rough. The forecasters spent all their time in the cramped trailers using outdated technology from the 1970s to 1980s. The computers had a software structure from the 1970s and there was only one working radar station. There was also a radio desk in a small cramped room where you had to stand up to manually record the weather radio broadcast. Plus, 1998 was a busy year for severe weather. Holsten recalls evacuating the trailers one night as a severe wind storm moved through; he had to hide in a ten by ten foot steel army can that was being used as a storm shelter. He survived that event and survived spending three days in the trailers during an early 1999 blizzard. He powered through 2.5 days of work after he tried sleeping in the trailers. This proved to be nearly impossible though because of mice scurrying along the floors. Eventually though, him and his co-workers on duty were rescued and relieved.

It was not until August of 1999 that the physical building opened for use. It was like night and day to Holsten. That summer was particularly hot, so they had to use sprinklers on top of the trailers to keep them cool. Not only was the new building much cooler, but it had a big upgrade in technology. It was like going from the stone age to the modern age.

Holsten has seen the evolution of technology over the course of 25 years. The WSR-88D radar has undergone numerous upgrades. It rotates faster now, it has four times the resolution it used to have, and it has dual-polarization, which allows you to see the size and shapes of precipitation particles. Computer model data has also dramatically improved, which allows forecasters to now model conditions up to 16 days in advance. When Holsten first started, forecasts could only go up to one to three days in advance. Nowadays, the office can have a pretty good idea about what may happen two weeks out. Other changes include the evolution in GOES satellites and other data processing applications like Advanced Weather Interactive Processing Systems (AWIPS) and Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS). Satellites used to send back an image every 30 minutes in the 1990s and now they send back images in 30 seconds or less.

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The next 25 years look really exciting to Holsten. The radar is currently in the later stages of a renovation, which will extend its life by another 10 to 15 years. However, future radar technology looks very exciting. Phased Array Radar will be the next system employed in at least 10 years. It can be controlled electronically and knows where storms are located and where the air is clear. Therefore, it can stay on a storm instead of constantly rotating. It can also multitask and scan a storm up and down in real time. It also has the ability to combine with FAA radars. Ultimately, it will save taxpayers money down the road, as it is cheaper to operate, but it does have a higher initial cost. The goal is to have more advanced watches and warnings using this radar technology.

Future technology that could happen down the road includes a system that gives probabilities based on the location of the storm within a warning polygon. This system could simulate individual storms out into the future and give the chance a tornado occurs within a certain amount of time as it travels within a warning polygon. Another system could predict supercell and tornado occurrences within an hour on a very small scale.

Ultimately, the NWS Northern Indiana office is always keeping an eye on the sky and is looking out for you. They seek to protect life and property and the forecasters have a combined 2.5 centuries worth of experience at the office. They also continually provide specific weather data and information for decision makers, such as local, state, and federal officials. The office hopes to build on its achievements and developments over the first 25 years and continue to work for you for many years to come.

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You can read more information about the office by visiting this link.

As reported by WANE 15