July 11, 2018

NOAA's Efforts to Fix Critical Weather Radar Gaps Are Slow Going

Doppler radar transformed the way we look at the weather. Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms rarely sneak up on us anymore. However, it only works when it can see the right parts of the storm. Central North Carolina has one of the worst weather radar gaps in the United States. Charlotte is the largest city in the country without adequate low-level radar coverage. There are several similar gaps across the country, but none with so many people at a disadvantage. Congress has tried multiple times over the past few years to rectify the problem. Although a renewed effort to look into gaps in radar coverage became law last year, progress is slow going.

Congress doesn't pay much attention to the weather unless there's discussion about a disaster or climate change. There are a few bills in each meeting of Congress to beef-up funding for forecasting and research, but like most proposed legislation, they never see the light of day. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 represented the most attention Congress has paid to weather forecasting in decades. The bill, which the president signed into law in April 2017, was geared toward improving forecasts and creating better and more timely severe weather warnings.

Among other things, the lengthy piece of legislation specifically directs NOAA to conduct research into critical efforts like increasing tornado warning lead time, increase the accuracy of hurricane forecasts, and work toward better weather modelling.

The bill also directs the agency to identify gaps in the country's network of weather radars and propose a plan to fill those gaps. Lawmakers gave NOAA 180 days after the bill became law to submit to the Senate a report on gaps in radar coverage across the country and 90 days after that to formulate a plan to rectify the problems.

It's been exactly 450 days since the enactment of that legislation. The agency has not yet completed a report on radar gaps or a plan to fix them, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service told me on Tuesday.  When I asked when the agency expected to complete the report, the spokesperson added:

NOAA is working diligently to complete the study and report required. We take this requirement very seriously. Congress was made aware during the formulation of this legislation that such a study and report would take much longer than six months.

Gaps in weather radar coverage is an issue I've talked about for years. The first freelance article I ever wrote was about the radar gap in North Carolina. I've lived near Greensboro for the past eight years.  I'm intimately aware of the occasional sketchiness of radar coverage in this state. The stretch of Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Greensboro has minimal low-level radar coverage, a dangerous gamble with the number of severe storms that regularly traverse over so many people.

Why is this such an issue? It starts with the nature of weather radar and the nature of bureaucracy.

Despite Its Flaws, Radar Today Is Still Better Than Ever

Source: National Weather Service/Wikimedia

Weather radar came into operational use in the United States at the end of the 1950s. The network started with installation of the first WSR-57 radar dish at the National Hurricane Center in Miami on June 26, 1959. Dozens more would be installed over the following years, including the WSR-57 radar atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City (pictured above) that's still there to this day.

Source: NWS

Early weather radar had limited range and could only see the location and, later on, the intensity of precipitation—a far cry from today's capabilities. The above image shows the terminal that displayed radar data from a WSR-57 radar near Cincinnati, Ohio*. The hook echoes on the monitor are supercells producing destructive tornadoes during the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974.

There were more than 130 densely-packed radar sites across the central and eastern United States before the network was modernized with the rest of the National Weather Service in the 1990s. The Next Generation Radar (NEXRAD) network was developed in the late 1980s and the National Weather Service began retiring the old radar sites and installing Doppler weather radar (WSR-88D) around the country in 1992.

Weather radar sites before modernization (pre-1989) and after modernization in the 1990s. The radar installed in western Washington in 2011 is not shown. (Source: NWS/National Academy Press | Titles added by author)

The current generation of radar uses the Doppler effect to detect the wind speed and direction within a storm, critical in the detection of storms capable of producing severe winds, hail, and tornadoes. The improved technology also gave the new radar devices a larger radius and higher resolution than the older generations, allowing the use of fewer sites that are spread across a greater distance. Recent upgrades added dual-polarization capability to the existing radar network, giving meteorologists the ability to identify rain, hail, wintry precipitation, and tornado debris.

If Only Earth Was Flat...

Source: NWS Jetstream

Doppler weather radar works by sending out strong radio waves from the radar dish at a slight angle—the standard angle for low-level coverage is 0.5°. The energy reflects off of objects in the atmosphere and the radar measures the strength of the returning beam and the time it takes to return in order to determine the location, intensity, speed, direction of movement, size, and shape of the objects in the beam's path. The radar dish then adjusts its angle upward and repeats this process for several minutes until it has a complete scan of the atmosphere.

This leads to a couple of flaws in radar technology. The first is that large objects like water towers, wind turbines, and mountains can block the beam. A temperature inversion can refract the radar beam back toward the ground and lead to false returns. Radar towers are vulnerable to lightning strikes, wind damage, and aging mechanics, which could render them inoperable at the worst possible time.

Source: NWS Jetstream

Radar is also eventually thwarted by the curvature of the Earth itself. The radar beam grows higher and higher above ground level as it gets farther away from the radar site. This limits a radar site's effectiveness beyond a certain radius when it comes to looking for tornadoes and other severe hazards.

Source: NWS
The beam curving upward with height results in gaps in radar coverage. Most of the largest gaps occur in the Rocky Mountains where the terrain simply blocks the signal from covering some communities, but some of the gaps are due to radar sites being spaced too far apart. The worst gaps east of the Rockies occur over South Dakota, Missouri, parts of the Deep South, and the worst (by number of people affected) is in central North Carolina.

Low-level radar coverage is important because that's where tornadoes form. It's crucial to see rotation within a thunderstorm as close to the ground as possible in order to detect a potential tornado and issue warnings with adequate lead time. 

Central North Carolina Got Overlooked

A radar image of the tornado near Charlotte, N.C. at 2:32 AM on March 3, 2012. The left image shows base reflectivity (precipitation) and the right image shows base velocity (wind). The radar is located to the west near Greenville, S.C.

The urgency surrounding the radar gap in North Carolina surrounds the unease of knowing what can happen without adequate radar coverage in a densely populated area. Charlotte is the largest metropolitan area between Atlanta and Washington D.C. The city and its suburbs are home to more than 2.4 million people, a population greater than that of 15 states.

There's a small Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR) site at the Charlotte Airport, part of a network of airport-based radars meant to protect arriving and departing flights from dangerous conditions. These radars are different from the WSR-88D in that they have a much shorter range and they're more susceptible to interference.

The lack of low-level coverage in central North Carolina isn't a theoretical game of what-if. An EF-2 tornado touched down a few miles northeast of Charlotte in the middle of the night on March 3, 2012. There was no tornado warning before the storm. The tornado damaged hundreds of homes and injured several people.

The tornado happened quickly and, despite its strength, the rotation was shallow. The beams from nearby Doppler radar sites were far too high to catch the rotation in the storm. The beam from the radar near Greenville, S.C., was 8,200 feet above ground level at the site of the tornado. The radar image above shows the Greenville radar at the time of the tornado. The beam there from the radar in Columbia, S.C., was 9,100 feet high. The tornado signature did show up on Charlotte's TDWR site, but it wasn't particularly strong.

This issue was known long before any new radar sites were built. Years of debate preceded the Weather Service Modernization Act of 1992, which consolidated smaller, more localized offices into the agency we know today.  A subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing called "Tornado Warnings and Weather Service Modernization" on August 7, 1989, to specifically discuss the proposed closure of the Charlotte weather service office.

The modernization plan divided the Charlotte area between the consolidated NWS offices in Greenville, S.C., Columbia, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C. The new Doppler weather radars sites were co-located with those three offices, leaving Charlotte—a city whose metropolitan area has millions of people—split in thirds with radar coverage to match.

Many of the issues we're dealing with nearly 30 years later came to light in that congressional hearing. The subcommittee heard a variety of opinions on the topic. The head of citizens' emergency preparedness committee at UNC Charlotte pleaded in his testimony not to move city's radar to Columbia for fear of losing low-level radar coverage:

Jack Roper, broadcast meteorologist for WSPA in Greenville, S.C., expressed his concern about the  new radar system's spatial coverage in his part of South Carolina. He characterized the new Doppler network as something that "could be a new Edsel," a reference to Ford's aggressive marketing of a line of cars that failed to meet the ad campaign's lofty expectations and resulted in tremendous financial losses for the company.

The issues were raised again in a letter from Rep. Liz Patterson (D-S.C.) to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) before a June 1991 U.S. Senate hearing on NWS modernization.

Despite all of the concerns voiced in the years leading up to modernization, Charlotte still lost its weather office and its weather radar to smaller cities down the road. Problems with radar gaps were well known when the government started planning the current radar network, especially in central North Carolina, even as the agency said several years after modernization began that there was no lowering of the quality of service in the Charlotte area.

Past Attempts to Fill Radar Gaps

Several congresspeople introduced legislation to improve Doppler weather radar coverage in the years before the 2017 bill became law. The most recent legislative success that directly resulted in a new weather radar came after a push by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to secure funding for a new radar site on the Washington coast. The new radar, which went into service in the fall of 2011, was important in monitoring Pacific storms as they approach Washington and Oregon.

Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) and Sen. Richard Burr both introduced the Metropolitan Weather Hazards Protection Act of 2015 in their respective chambers. The bill directed the government to construct new Doppler weather radar sites near big cities in known radar gaps within a year and a half of the bill's passage. The, uh, creative specifications laid out in the bill—"maintain and operate at least one Doppler weather radar site within 55 miles of each city in the United States that has a population of more than 700,000 individuals"—served to limit the scope of the bill to pretty much just Charlotte, North Carolina. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent but died after the House took no action.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) introduced the RADAR Act in 2016, which died without any legislative action. The bill would have required both 1) the operation of at least one Doppler radar site within 55 miles of each state capital and 2) that any future radar sites would be located near at least one county with a population of 130,000+ that doesn't have adequate low-level radar coverage.

The capitals of 13 states, including Boustany's home state of Louisiana, would have been eligible for new radar sites under the proposal. While the bill would have filled in some glaring gaps in coverage, including those in central South Dakota, central Missouri, and southern Louisiana, it essentially told North Carolina that it can wait its turn until the next time around.

All of the radar-related bills introduced in Congress since Cantwell's successful push a decade ago have died in their respective chambers except for the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, the effectiveness of which is still pending.

Assuming a similar timeline to the western Washington radar earlier this decade—funding secured in 2009 and the radar made operational in 2011—we likely won't see any new radar sites until the early 2020s.

[Top Image: Pierre cb via Wikimedia Commons]

*I originally said the old WSR-57 radar image was from Wilmington, Ohio. The NWS office is in Wilmington, but the radar is in Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. I've corrected my error.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.