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Siren upgrade complete just in time for tornado season

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Keep your ears peeled. Today at 1:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m., most Minnesota cities and counties will activate their outdoor warning siren systems for a one-minute, statewide tornado drill.

TV and cable stations will participate, sounding a simulated tornado warning message.

State safety officials are taking the opportunity to urge Minnesotans to familiarize themselves with their weather emergency plans before tornado season really heats up.

Speaking of tornado sirens, Minneapolis residents may notice more sirens around town this tornado season.

The city has upgraded and expanded its tornado warning system, the Star Tribune reports, with forty-two sirens replacing the 30 that were installed decades ago. The old sirens were installed between 1950 and 1965. The new sirens have a battery backup energy source, allowing them to keep functioning even during a power failure.

St. Paul has also been upgrading its sirens, adding a new "more responsive warning system."

St. Paul's Director of Emergency Management Rick Larkin told MPR it was difficult to get replacement parts for older sirens, which date back to the early 1950s. "Definitely it's time to upgrade a 50-year leap in technology that we've made."

Like Minneapolis', St. Paul's new siren system will be much more effective when it's needed, he says.

"If there is some kind of a problem with one of the sirens it'll actually send a signal back to the control center and it'll say the motor is not functioning or we lost power or the radio signal is offline, or whatever the case might be," Larkin says.

The state's tornado sirens are typically controlled by county dispatchers.

Most metro counties activate them when the National Weather Service issues either a tornado warning or a severe thunderstorm warning with winds forecast to exceed 70 miles per hour, but many cities and counties make their own rules.

"All 87 counties in Minnesota kind of do things differently," Doug Neville, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, told MPR. "They set their own policies on how the sirens work, when they sound the sirens."

More on the state's patchwork system of city, county and privately-owned severe weather sirens

Here are some great “tornado basics” from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory

What is a tornado?
A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust and debris. Tornadoes are the most violent of all atmospheric storms.

Where do tornadoes occur?
Tornadoes occur in many parts of the world, including Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Even New Zealand reports about 20 tornadoes each year. Two of the highest concentrations of tornadoes outside the U.S. are Argentina and Bangladesh.

How many tornadoes occur in the U.S. each year?
About 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly. Since official tornado records only date back to 1950, we do not know the actual average number of tornadoes that occur each year. Plus, tornado spotting and reporting methods have changed a lot over the last several decades.

Check out this NOAA video explaining the difference between a tornado warning and a watch:

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