September 04, 2015

The Eastern Washington Radar Gap: An Acute Need for Fireweather, Flood Forecasting, and Agriculture

In a previous blog, I discussed the large weather radar gap over the eastern slopes of the Cascades and nearby eastern Washington.  The map below shows the coverage at various elevations from the existing National Weather Service radars.  The eastern slopes of the Cascades and the adjacent portions of the Okanogan have no coverage below 10,000 ft.   Vast areas of eastern Oregon have no coverage, but few folks live there.  Coastal Oregon is also bad news.  The problem, of course, is the blocking effects of our mountains, coupled with radar beams that slope upwards away from the ground.

So why should you care?     First, did you know that weather radars are wonderful tools for seeing wildfires?   That weather radars can spot exploding wildfires at an early stage, helping to provide warnings to firefighters so they can get out of the way?  That the smoke plumes are prominent on National Weather Service radars?

Let me show you some examples.    Here is a view from the Spokane radar of some fires over the Okanogan at 7:02 PM on August 28th.

or how about the impressive plume from the Canyon Creek fire near Mt. Adams?  You see the colored area stretching towards the NE?  That is a smoke plume from the fire.

The closer the fire, the better it shows on radars, and my experience is that it doesn't take a big fire to be seen if the radar is close.  Weather radars scan frequently, roughly once every 5 minutes, so a rapid update is possible.

Imagine how helpful it would be if there were a few additional radars near the eastern slopes of the Cascades that would paint out fire positions and evolution in real time.   A potential life saver.

Wildfires show up well in weather radar

The eastern slopes of the Cascades may be a generally dry area, but they DO get very heavy thunderstorms, with torrential rains, mudslides, debris flows, and flooding.   Right now such events are hard to see on current radars because the beam is so high over the region (10,000 ft and more).

There are many cases of flash floods in Yakima, Kittitas, Chelan, and Okanogan Counties, some with substantial loss of life and property.

And then there is agriculture...the massive agriculture of the eastern slopes of the Cascades, with apples, grapes, hops, and many other crops worth billions of dollars per year.   Local weather radars would help provide accurate distributions of precipitation, warn of impending heavy rain, guide planting and spraying.

And then there is value of having the weather radar to guide folks in Yakima, Ellensburg, Wenatchee, and Omak in their daily lives.  To know when showers are approaching so they can get that visit to the park in, that bike ride, or whatever.  Folks on the western side have good coverage, why shouldn't those to the east of the Cascade crest enjoy the same benefits?

So how can the radar gap be fixed?  We need more radars!  The radars acquired for the eastern slopes do not have to be as expensive as those on the West, since heavy precipitation is not as extensive (bigger radars can handle attenuation of the radar beam better).   So more modest "C Band" radars would be appropriate.  I suspect two would do the job for the eastern slopes of the Cascades.    TV stations buy these radars all the time (including KING-5 and KCPQ in Seattle a few decades ago), so they are not that expensive.   Last time I priced them the cost was about a million a piece.

An eastern Washington group is starting to work on this project, including meteorologists at the Spokane National Weather Service office , representativesof Chelan County Public Works and Kittitas County, and local agricultural interests.

In the end it will take the intervention of Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, local congressional folks, the Governor, or others with access to resources to make this happen.  Perhaps the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, a long-time Northwestener who surely knows the issue, could help.

Enhanced weather radar coverage over the eastern slopes will rapidly pay back the modest cost of its acquisition and maintenance, and I believe save lives of wildland firefighers and others.  Hopefully, we can make this happen.


  1. I think when the blog said "radar beams that slope upwards away from the radars.", that it meant "radar beams that slope upwards away from the ground?" perhaps??

  2. I wonder -- will we ever see personal Doppler weather radar installations, in the same way we see personal weather stations? A development like this might help fill in the gaps and lower the cost of (parts of) the technology. Given the relatively smaller size, I could see X and K band dishes becoming practical here.

    What might not be practical: FCC licensing. Since these are outside of the ISM bands and -- I'm guessing -- operate at a higher power than what ISM normally allows, each installation might need to be FCC licensed.

  3. Looking at the map, I wonder why eastern Oregon is left out of the mix. Sure, I know "they" are not "us", but we all share fire fighters and Oregon is producing some really nice wines lately, too. And 4 senators is better than 2.

  4. In response to David Cuthbert's comment, such a prototype network of "community-owned" radars is currently operating and under evaluation in north-central Texas. It is known as CASA-WX, and is a highly innovative networked collaborative-adaptive multi-node system whose initial development was supported by taxpayer-funded grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) . More info is available at:

  5. 200,000 people live in the three small counties that make up Central Oregon (Deschutes, Jefferson, Crook) so I disagree with "hardly anyone lives there" comment. But you'd be right for all the rest of Eastern Oregon! Very low population density...Mark Nelsen

  6. Brad: Quite an interesting project! I watched the videos and found the UMass site; are they still operating on the initial $10M NSF grant? What would it take to deploy this on a larger scale?

  7. So helpful for us SW WA coastal types when Langley Hill went in. As a former cranberry farmer, I attest to the precision of modern radar and its ability to give you gaps to work in and around squalls, etc.

  8. David- In addition to the initial 10-year duration Engineering Research Center award given to CASA (which drew to a close nearly three years ago), several smaller follow-on National Science Foundation awards have been made to this group. These have focused on a combination of further engineering and interface improvements aimed at better defining and meeting societal needs in the more urban Dallas-Fort Worth urban testbed environment. (By contrast, CASA's initial US-based deployment was in a far less populous agricultural setting in southwest Oklahoma.) More importantly, the North Central Texas Council of Governments--which encompasses both the major urban areas of DFW as well as surrounding smaller communities--has brought increased local funding needed to install and operate additional "nodes".

    I'm sorry that I cannot quote the per-node capital investment/installation expenses at present; as quoted several years ago, these were ca. $500k/unit for each compact scanning X-band systems. Current operating expenses for the seven-node north-Texas network are estimated at $600k/yr, but the per-node price drops appreciably for more expansive deployments. By contrast, at last check (and I caution that this estimate is likely outdated) the per-unit cost of NOAA's proposed MPAR (Multifunction Phased Array Radar) system were estimated to be as high as $11.5M per copy. While far fewer of these large electronically-scanning rapid refresh units would be required to fully replace the existing WSR-88D system, this approach would sacrifice availability of high-resolution radar imagery at the lowest atmospheric levels where societal needs and impacts are largest.

  9. Cliff, in a perfect world, Okanogan County would have radar coverage, but such coverage is not free. The whole central coast of Oregon lacks coverage, and with the number of storms that pummel them fresh off the Pacific each year, they really need to have priority on the next installation.

  10. Considering air and ground transportation needs, wouldn't those also be user groups that could advocate for better coverage? Thinking rail service, civilian aircraft, and trucking companies.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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