On January 14, 2023, the National Weather Service forecast office in Huntsville celebrated its 20-year anniversary of operations at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. But way before 2003 there was a presence here in Huntsville!

Before the National Weather Service was established, states had Weather Bureau offices. While weather observations were conducted before 1958, the first official Weather Bureau office opened for operation at the old Huntsville-Madison County Airport.

The arrival of the office was due to the boom in population that came with the arrival of the Redstone Arsenal. Weather operations, along with the working radar, were performed at this location for almost nine years to the day.

The rapid growth of Huntsville meant an increased demand for the airport. With the opening of the new airport in the southwest portion of Madison County, the Weather Bureau moved to its new home bringing along the radar.

Presence of the Weather Service Leaves Huntsville – For A Short Time:

Radar In Hytop, Alabama

In the mid-80s, the National Weather Service National Modernization and Associated Restructuring program were started. While this program was successful in deploying the latest technology, during its time, it proved to be detrimental to North Alabama. The negative was the Huntsville office would be closing and all responsibility would be placed on the Birmingham office. While the office closed, the new doppler radar was put into commission in 1997.

They were covering about 50 counties across Central and North Alabama. Being a very active area of the country, in regards to severe weather, having one forecast office covering that area would be taxing, according to Todd Barron, Meteorologist In Charge at the NWS Huntsville office.

NWS Huntsville History

New Weather Forecast Office Slated To Open:

In the early 2000s, Congressman Bud Cramer sought Congressional legislation to open a new National Weather Service Office in Huntsville. After a brief hiatus, the weather forecast office was slated to open with $3 million in start-up funds. Construction began on the new office, which was located on the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Operations began on January 14, 2003, at 10 a.m., when the first area forecast discussion was written up by then Lead Forecast Chris Dardin who would one day be a Meteorologist in Charge. There were a total of 14 people on staff, with many coming from neighboring forecast offices. The new office would include 11 counties in North Alabama, including Cullman County.

Cullman County was adament about wanting to be a part of the Huntsville forecast area. We are going to be working with the other forecast offices, making sure that our forecasts line up and making sure we have that good collaborative message helps our citizens stay prepared.

Todd Barron, Meteorologist In Charge NWS Forecast Office In Huntsville

Advancement In Radar & Technology

In the 20 years the office has been open, there have been large advancements when it comes to the radar system and technology. When we look at the radar system itself, the doppler radar that was commissioned in 1997 may still have its original bones but there are plenty of upgrades within.

When the radar was put into commission, it was known as a doppler radar. This was the case until 2012 when it received an upgrade to dual-polarization. Another major upgrade was to replace the pedestal inside the dome in 2022, which turns the radar. In total, there have been hundreds of upgrades to the radar at Hytop.

So, you may be wondering what the difference is between doppler and dual-polarization radar. The doppler radar was only able to send out horizontal pulses which meant it was only good to track storm movement and location. With the upgrade to dual-pol in 2012, it sent out horizontal and vertical pulses helping to detect more within a storm.

We are able to see stuff like if rain is falling vs. hail. We can see where rain/snow alliance can be and then the big thing, we can see tornado debris. So if a tornado is on the ground picking up debris we can actually detect that on the radar which we couldn’t do before.

Todd Barron, Meteorologist In Charge NWS Forecast Office In Huntsville

Another great advancement since 2002 was going from a county-based warning system to a polygon-based one. What this means is, that leading up to 2002 if a severe thunderstorm warning was issued anywhere in the county the entire county would be under that warning. Now, thanks to the latest technology, it is polygon-based toward a specific storm and includes particular storm risks.

In the next 20 years I’m excited because the question that you get, that we all get, that every meteorologist gets is what’s it going to do at my house? So I think in 20 years from now we are going to have a much better idea on helping people assess their risk for a particular weather event and help them better understand what the weather will do at their house.

Todd Barron, Meteorologist In Charge NWS Forecast Office In Huntsville

Like the NWS, the Weather Authority is here to provide you with an accurate forecast and keep you safe during severe weather. The partnerships between emergency management, media and the NWS will always remain important.