CBS affiliate WKYT (Channel 27) will announce today that it has bought a new weather radar system that it boasts is "simply the most important, life-saving advancement in weather technology and forecasting ever in Kentucky."
The First Alert Defender dual-polarity radar, which will begin operating in September, was an investment of more than $1 million, partially financed with a sponsorship by Kentucky's Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, that is part of a new class of weather radars that provide more information to meteorologists.
It also gives the affiliate a claim to being among select stations in other states that have the most advanced live Doppler radar worldwide for now.
At 1 million watts, the system has nearly triple the wattage of rival NBC affiliate WLEX's 350,000-watt MaxTrack Live Doppler. It's also a dual-polarity radar, meaning that its radar beams travel along the traditional horizontal axis but also go vertical.
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"It gives you twice the data," WKYT chief meteorologist T.G. Shuck said. "With the horizontal beam, you can see that it's raining ... and you can tell there's raindrops ... but with dual polarity, you can tell the size and shape of these objects."
It allows meteorologists to quickly determine the type of winter weather, such as snow, sleet or ice.
"Given our history with ice over the last five, six years, that's a critical tool to have," Shuck said.
And weather coverage is one of the biggest drivers of local television news viewing, WKYT news director Robert Thomas said.
Thomas said that research conducted by the station last year suggested that 71 percent of people thought an important attribute of a station was to have "the most powerful live radar technology that detects severe weather." On a scale of 1 to 10, that group ranked it a 10, he said.
"Even our research has shown that the advances that (WLEX) had in weather technology ... years ago made an impact on their ratings," Thomas said.
WLEX news director Bruce Carter said he thinks WKYT's new weather tool won't have any effect on viewership. The stations' newscasts routinely battle for the top spots among household viewership, although WLEX continues to hold a larger lead in advertiser-favored demographics.
"Over the years, people have relied on (chief meteorologist) Bill Meck and relied on our StormTracker MaxTrack Live Doppler," Carter said. "It's not a threat to us what soever. We're very comfortable with our Doppler, and glad to see them get one."
Carter also disputed the added benefit of WKYT's extra wattage, saying a manufacturer once told him anything above WLEX's 350,000 was "overkill."
Shuck, though, said the added power helps cut through severe storms.
"Say, for example, you have a lot of storms in the west side of Lexington and another line directly behind it," he said. "When you have more power, you're able to see both of those lines better."
Chris Aldridge, general manager at ABC affiliate WTVQ (Channel 36), would not speculate on what impact, if any, WKYT's purchase would have on viewership.
"I have no idea. I think it gives them, as it would any TV station, another tool to promote," he said.
WTVQ has a radar system but turned it off years ago in favor of a more advanced software tool — VIPIR — that analyzes radar sent out by the National Weather Service.
Analyzing the equipment
Before buying the First Alert Defender, the station, like WTVQ, relied on the National Weather Service radar, an often-mentioned point in promotional ads for rival WLEX, which noted that it had the only live Doppler radar in Lexington. It disputed WKYT's claims at the time that the National Weather Service radar was live, too.
"I'm glad that they now have a live Doppler like we do, because they can now tell the truth," Carter said.
WKYT disputed that at the time and still does, Shuck said, explaining that much of the National Weather Service radar they used could be viewed in real time.
The National Weather Service is transitioning to dual-polarity Doppler radars — the newest radar technology — like the one WKYT has bought, said Les Lemon, a fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies affiliated with the University of Oklahoma.
"There's a lot that we're still learning" about such radars, Lemon said.
He said the advantages to the new system include being able to accurately differentiate between biological organisms and weather.
"That's important, because at times now we can't," he said.
Dual-polarity radars also reduce the uncertainty around whether a tornado has formed during severe weather, and they provide more accurate rainfall measurements.
"We've got a lot of continued research that needs to be done before we can nail down the advantages with confidence," he said.
Overall, though, they provide more data, and "if I can have more data, I'll take it," he said.
WKYT's is the first from its manufacturer to be housed inside a "stealth dome" that's made up of 36 flat panels bolted together to form the dome.
Shuck said the dome exterior, which is expected to be hoisted onto its tower outside WKYT's Winchester Road location on Monday, is built with new materials that are less likely to interfere with the radar.
The dome "doesn't inhibit the energy much," he said.
Shuck said the dome, which probably will be visible from Interstate 75, "looks like Epcot at Disney."
Joking aside, "It's the best thing out there," he said. "It's the most state-of-the-art, best radar you can get in the world. Period."