Sandwiched between Indianapolis, Chicago and Fort Wayne is a gap. Not a physical one, but important nonetheless.

Until recently, the Greater Lafayette area was in a radar gap, hurting the ability of local meteorologists to accurately predict and observe the weather. The three nearest radars in Indianapolis, Chicago and Fort Wayne don’t quite reach this far, said Dan Cziczo, the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department head.

Cziczo said because of this gap, the area has had to rely on weather forecasts from surrounding major cities, which are less accurate and don’t always see weather events around Greater Lafayette.

Purdue filled that gap.

Robin Tanamachi, an associate professor in the EAPS department, said this gap inspired her to install a radar at Purdue in 2018 atop Wang Hall. Without this radar, there could have been dangerous consequences.

“I believe they actually caught a tornado on it that Indianapolis didn’t see,” said Sydney Brown, the President of the Purdue University Meteorological Association. “When there’s a meteorologist sitting at the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, they can’t see that, so Indianapolis has actually told us that they look at our radar, and they use it when they know something’s happening up here.”

Meteorology, broadly, is the study of the weather and how it impacts people. Although attempts to predict the weather have existed since ancient times, meteorology only became a field of scientific rigor about a century ago. This is when weather data began to be tracked accurately.

Brown said meteorology was limited to what could be seen with the naked eye. Nowadays, meteorologists input data into a model to inform their predictions.

“Back then, if there was (a hurricane) spinning in the middle of the ocean and there were no ships out there, there wasn’t a hurricane,” Brown said.

However, with digital models there is always uncertainty. The data that meteorologists input to inform their weather predictions is not always accurate.

“Models are only as good as the data you put into them,” Cziczo said.

This uncertainty can explain why weather forecasts are not always exact, said Jacob Bruss, the graduate student advisor of the Purdue University Meteorological Association.

“Normally, weather apps are automated. There aren’t enough people on the planet to individually change things based on what someone can see from the ground,” he said. “They can’t just call you on the phone and ask you what you see and then put that on your phone for you, because then it kind of defeats the purpose,” Bruss said.

The radar on Wang Hall isn’t without its flaws, however. Tanamachi said that the range of Purdue’s radar is about 50 kilometers, compared to the over 200-kilometer range of the radars run by the National Weather Service.

There are also several buildings on campus that interfere with the radar, including the water tower, the bell tower and Ross-Ade Stadium, Bruss said.

“(The buildings appear on the radar) like a birthmark,” Brown said. “We know that this is what this is, and it’s not a huge thunderstorm, you know, barreling right towards (us). It’s not big enough to block that kind of thing.”

PUMA provides weekly forecasts for Jefferson Howells, the campus emergency director, and hour-to-hour forecasts before football games. They are also planning to provide a forecast for the upcoming Purdue Grand Prix.

“This is affecting humans. There’s people living in major cities now,” Brown said. “Big weather systems impact those people.”

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