The new Langley Hill NEXRAD radar site in Grays Harbor County, WA as seen on August 3, 2011. Photo courtesy of National Weather Service
One of the first reflectivity images from the new Langley Hill NEXRAD serving coastal Washington State. Photo courtesy of National Weather Service
COPALIS BEACH, Wash. – Ever gripe about how the weather forecast is wrong? Now there's a reason for the weatherman to get it right more often. Thursday, professional forecasters and a gaggle of politicians dedicated a powerful new Doppler weather radar on the coast. At the same time, the National Weather Service is upgrading its other radars in the Northwest.
"Like a kid in a candy store." That's how more than one weather forecaster described himself at the commissioning ceremony for the new coastal Doppler radar. The description fits none better than the University of Washington's joyful, beaming professor of atmospheric sciences, Cliff Mass.
"This new radar is going to profoundly improve our understanding of Northwest weather and our ability to forecast it," he says.
Mass says during the testing phase, the new radar already showed it can measurably improve the accuracy of wind and rainfall predictions.
"And when the weather prediction models are mistaken, this radar peering out hundreds of miles into the Pacific will provide six to 12 hours of warning which we might not have had before," Mass explains. "It will allow people, businesses and governments to prepare."
It's been a long, tortuous path to this day for Mass. He's championed the construction of a coastal Doppler radar station for a good 20 years. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell eventually took up the cause and secured the construction money.
But in the early going Mass recalls strong headwinds.
"Initially, you know the response was not enthusiastic because it was felt that we didn't need radars here in the Northwest really because we didn't have big thunderstorms and big hailstorms and convection," he recalls.
The turning point was an unexpectedly punishing windstorm and flood in December 2007. Mass says the location for the new radar station, halfway up the Washington coast, was carefully chosen.
The radar's sweep stretches from Tillamook, Oregon to Vancouver Island. That includes the approaches to the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Veteran southwest Washington crab fisherman Dale Beasley can remember many an early morning trying to decide whether it was safe to go out. He says now he can confidently venture out more often because he has a better idea for when to turn back to beat a storm to port.
"You're playing with the edge of your life all the time and you don't want to be wrong," Beasley says. "This weather Doppler will help increase the economic benefit to folks. There will be fishing days in the early season that they would miss without it."
The meteorologist-in-charge of the Portland office of the National Weather Service says the new coastal tower eliminates a blind spot in radar coverage. All the government's existing weather radars are inland. Their view of oncoming weather is partially blocked by terrain, such as the Olympic Mountains or Oregon's Coast Range.
Steve Todd says those existing radar installations are getting an upgrade this fall.
"I think it will help us a lot with estimating precipitation, which is important of course for flood issues, and estimating the melting level or the freezing level, to help us get a better idea of where the snow is falling and sticking where it's not and where it's running off."
Todd says the upgrades to the Portland radar are complete. Seattle and Pendleton are underway. The Spokane, Boise and Medford radars come later.
Professor Cliff Mass, whom you heard from earlier, says it makes sense to add another Doppler radar on the central or southern Oregon Coast. The National Weather Service says it has no money nor plans to pursue that for now.
On the Web:
Langley Hill Radar:
Prof. Cliff Mass' weather blog:
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