Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Oregon Coastal Radar Gap

It was 10:30 AM on Thursday morning and the forecast models predicted that a deep low center from a Pacific storm was moving up the Oregon coast.    For meteorologists, it was crucial to know exactly where the low was located, both to check the model forecasts and to improve upcoming model runs. The visible satellite image was not definitive, with an elongated trough and no clear circulation evident.   But the models were emphatic it was off the coast somewhere.  But where?

What did the National Weather Service weather radars show?

The new Langley Hill radar on the Washington Coast was too far north, since the low was probably off the southern/central Oregon Coast.  It did not show a circulation, since it was too distant.

The Portland radar, too far from the ocean and the lower beam blocked by the coastal mountains, showed practically nothing offshore.  We see this problem all the time--the Portland radar is not very useful for viewing coastal or offshore weather.

The Medford, Oregon radar, too far inland and too high (it is on top of Mt. Ashland at around 7500 ft) showed little offshore.   No help at all over the ocean.

Putting all the radars together in a composite, there is little evidence of the circulation around the low...or anything else off of Oregon.  Not good.

Four hours later, when the the low center was further north and in the range of the Langley radar, the swirling circulation around the low was evident.  But for critical hours we did not have a good fix on the low.

The problem?    A huge gap in radar coverage over the Oregon coast and coastal ocean west of Oregon.  Here is an official National Weather Service radar map that shows the problem.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, there is also a major gap in coverage on the eastern slopes of the Cascades,

Since storms often come from the southwest and west, that means a major metropolitan area (Portland) lacks proper (or any) radar coverage upstream.   And as illustrated with the storm this week, it hurts western Washington forecasting as well, but at a more extended time range.  The lack of radar coverage off of the Oregon coast is something that Portland TV meteorologist Mark Nelsen has been blogging about repeatedly.  He knows.

The lack of a coastal radar is a particular problem today, since the National Weather Service forecast systems, like the new High Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR),  assimilates all U.S. radars before they make their forecasts.   That means that the radar information is used to describe the atmosphere, which greatly improves the forecasts.  I have noticed that the HRRR often gets offshore structures that are only described by the Langley radar.  Imagine if we had a similar radar on the Oregon coast!

As we learned with the acquisition from the Langley Hill radar near Hoquiam, the National Weather Service will not fix this problem without intense local lobbying.  I tried contacting the Oregon congressional delegation, but they were not interested in talking to someone from out of state. Oregon State residents, businesses, and organizations need to work together, in concert with their congressional representatives, to make the case for an Oregon coast coastal radar and to push for its acquisition.


Joel said...

Mark Nelson made a point to reference Wolf Read's article on comparing wind gust measurements of past storms; great read:

Unknown said...

There was recently a successful lobbying effort to keep the Coast Guard from removing a SAR helicopter from Newport, Or. Perhaps the Newport Fisherman's Wives would be interested in lobbying for better radar coverage now.

The Drennans said...

Judging from the national map of weather radar coverage areas, it looks like the continental US could use about 20 more.

Houston Wade said...

What is the cost of such a radar instillation?

Greg Metcalfe said...

@ Houston Wade: according to information posted on Sen. Cantwell's site at, probably a minimum of $9 million.

There was a saving of $3 million and one year for the Langley Hill Radar because an ex-Air Force NEXRAD radar was used. Also, there were two reports issued: a Radar Feasibility Study (2009), and a Site Survey / Environmental Assessment Report (2010). I don't know if those were the result of a single body of work, though it seems doubtful. Cantwell refers obtaining the funding for only one.

The timeline for something like this can be lengthy. The feasibility study was funded in 2007, and that seems to have been the first major (funded) work by the government on the Langley Hill Radar, which wasn't operational until September 2011.

And this was after years of lobbying.

Cliff Mass said...

There are no more WSR-88D radars available (Langley Hill got the last one). So we would be talking about a new commercial unit. Depending on the choice, probably talking about 2-4 million, but is a rough estimate.

Greg Metcalfe said...

OK, 2-4 million. Let us pad things a bit, and guess at a worst-case dollar amount, as I do not have figures for whether two studies were done, or only one. If my figure of $9 million reflected reality, based on a one-time saving of $3 million, and I take Cliff's worst-case estimate of $4 million, I get 9 + 3 + 4 = $17 million. Pad by 10%, and round up, and we get $19 million.

Compared to year-on-year economic losses due to late-for-work, traffic accidents with potential disability or death, crop losses, etc., this seems likely to be trivial. In a more morbid vein, consider that the proto-science science of economics currently values a human life in the United States at roughly $9 million. I form no moral conclusions, and invite anyone to search for 'economic cost of a human life', and form your own.

By that measure, the loss of a single crab boat off the Oregon coast due to a single blown forecast, may be worth more in economic terms than my worst-case guess at cost of an Oregon coastal radar. In human, rather than economic terms...

I'll stop now, because I am building toward a huge rant.

Paul Nickelson said...

Aircraft weather radar manufacturers are touting their units as effective to 320 nm and their doppler for turbulence effective to 50 miles, and that in 3D! At the same time airline companies are touting onboard internet at 12 mbps for each passenger. It would appear to be fairly easy to network the airborne radar data to weather stations via internet download giving a vast increase in usable information and at relatively low cost. That networked information would be of very high interest since it would be from varying flightpath directions looking at the same weather, giving a very detailed view for multiple user types.
Both Honeywell and Rockwell-Collins currently market these very advanced systems. There is a very good tutorial on the Honeywell site about their efficacy.
Cost and lead time for deployment of such a networked system would appear to be very positive since the elements are on-the-shelf and just need the connectivity to implement.
Paul in Kent, Wa.

Paul Nickelson said...

RE: Utilization of A/C weather radar.

Some study of A/C flight paths on the Flightradar24 website that would cover the coastal radar hole reveal that flight paths between ANC, SFO & LAX pass the Or-Ca border about 50 nm offshore and crossing the coastline at about Eureka. That track would yield a weather look at the 'hole' well within the scope of the types of weather radars touted by Honeywell and Rockwell-Collins. Also in the discussion was the lack of coverage on the East side of the Cascades. That could be easily covered by flights inbound for SEA from points East. Some issues with the 'floor' of radar coverage inflight at FL240 (Honeywell tutorial info) wouldn't seem to be insurmountable if the radar did occasional look-downs to more fully serve the needs of parallel users of the data. The Flightradar24 site has a wealth of information...mouse overs and clicks on A/C icons pulls up much data on flights.

Paul Nickelson said...

A quick search for info on Internet avaialbility over water yielded this site indicating that there are at least 4 systems currently providing access over water via satellite so it isn't limited to WiFi over land based towers.