Langley Hill Coastal Radar:  The Latest Addition to the National Weather Service Doppler Radar Network

After nearly 15 years of community lobbying, coupled with the efforts of U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a coastal radar is now being installed on the central Washington Coast.   This web site describes the location, capabilities, and history of this radar, and the substantial benefits that will be enjoyed once it is operational in September 2011.  It also provides a frequently updated view of the construction and preparation of the radar.

August 1
The radar facility is essentially complete and the unit is now undergoing calibration and testing.  Utilities and communications are operational.  One the radar is shown to be working correctly as a duplicate of the current National Weather Service radars, it will be taken off-line for two weeks (early September) to be updated with dual-polarization capabilities.  The service buildings are done and a fence has been put around them.  Below you can see a view from 2/3 up the can see the ocean!

viewradar       tower22

  July 1
The building holding the back-up generator was put into place this week and work continued on connecting power and utilities.  Below is a nice video showing the construction through the middle of June.  The photo on the right is of the generator building (plus the others than hold the receiver/transmitter).

    radar building

June 15
Major progress during the past two weeks.  Trenching to bring in power and utilities has been completed.  The electronics building is in place and some of the transmitter /receiver components have been installed.  The radar antenna was installed and the antenna pedestal has been oiled and prepared for operation.  Things are moving faster than planned.   Here are some pictures of the action!
antenna  towercable

rec     bldg

May 27th
 The Radome and antenna assembly are lifted into position.

Today, during a period of relatively light winds the radome and antenna were lifted into position by a LARGE crane.  The tower now rises well above the hill and is visisble for miles.  This is real.

May 19, 2011
The tower is going up and should be finished during the next few days!  The radome and antenna are in transit to the site and may go up sometime next week.  Workers on the top portions report they can see the ocean!

Tower   othertower

May 3, 2011. 
Trees are cut and the concrete pad is in!
(Left picture courtesy of Stuart Tomilonson, The Oregonian)

radarbase banner

Location Information

The radar is located on Langley Hill at an elevation of approximately 250 ft, roughly 3 miles east of the coastal town of Copalis Beach (see maps).

location23 dop

Why Is This New Radar Necessary? 

During the early to mid-1990s the National Weather Service (NWS) installed a network of powerful Doppler radars across the United States.  Known as the NEXRAD or WSR-88D radars, they were a huge advance for weather prediction and warning capabilities across the U.S.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, NEXRAD radars were placed on Camano Island, at Scappose near Portland, and on the top of Mt. Ashland near Medford (7500 ft!), as well as close to Spokane and Pendleton.

Although these radars represented a major improvement from the nearly radarless situation before, some major problems became apparent.  A huge issue was the lack of radar coverage over the coastal zone and offshore (see figures below). Furthermore, there was no coverage over the wet, windward sides of most of the regional coastal mountains, hampering prediction of flooding.  And, of course, coastal residents lacked the benefits of being able to use the radar for planning business and recreational activities.

Actual coverage  wedge

  (Left) Radar coverage map for the lowest radar beam (.5 degree elevation angle) for the current NWS radars.
Red indicates no coverage below 25,000 ft. (Right) Radar image from the Camano Is. radar.  The wedge
of no precipitation over the Olympics and the coast is due to terrain blockage.

The coastal zone of Washington State is one of the stormiest coastal areas of the nation, often experiencing fierce storms and hurricane-force winds.  Some cyclones approaching the coast are as strong as category 1-3 hurricanes and without coastal and offshore radar coverage we can not determine detailed storm structure as they approach the region.

When a hurricane or storm approaches the U.S. southeast or east coasts coastal radar provides detailed information hours
before the storm makes landfall.  This image is for Hurricane Katrina.

When major storms approach the southeast or eastern coasts of the U.S., National Weather Service radars can show their detailed structures.  Currently, the lack of coastal radar coverage does not give Northwest forecasters a similar tool.  This will change in September when the Langley Hill radar goes operational.

The Community Movement for a Coastal Radar

Beginning in the late 1990s, a group of Northwest meteorologists and interested organizations began an effort for securing a radar for the Washington coast.  The group included University of Washington meteorologists, TV weathercasters from throughout the region, local environmental groups such as Friends of Grays Harbor, local timber companies such as Port Blakely Tree Farms, local fisher and crabber organizations, and many of the local municipalities.  Rarely has such a wide-ranging group of scientists, resource companies, media, environmental groups and governmental representatives come together to advocate a major project.

Compelling evidence for the value of a coastal radar was provided during January and February 2001 when a research radar was placed at Westport, WA during the IMPROVE-2 field experiment (directed towards understanding the nature of precipitation processes influencing our regon). As shown in the figure below, the research radar clearly showed the structure of approaching storms and documented heavy precipitation on the coastal mountains.  NWS forecasters repeatedly noted the substantial value of the coastal radar for local forecasting during that period.

Image from a coastal radar at Wesport during the
IMPROVE-2 Experiment.  A strong front with intense rainfall
is approaching the Northwest coast.

Even with strong community support and a solid scientific case for the radar, there was little movement towards the acquisition of such a unit by the National Weather Service.  However, as described below the situation would change substantially in 2008 due to a major storm and the intervention of U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell.

During December 2-4, 2007 a catastrophic storm struck the western portions of Washington and Oregon. Winds along the coast gusted above 70 mph for nearly 24 hours, causing extensive treefalls, building damage, and power outages. Some gusts reached 125 mph.  At the same time, very heavy precipitation--up to 20 inches in 24 hours--hit the coastal mountains of southwest Washington.  The resulting flooding and slope failures were extraordinary. With no coastal radar viewing the windward (heavy precipitation) side of the terrain and the Camano and Portland radars poorly positioned to get reliable information, the National Weather Service was unable to secure a good idea of how much precipitation was falling in real-time.  The result was inadequate short-term forecasts. The Chehalis River flooded and without sufficient warning, farmers and others were unable to move many animals and assets to dry ground.  Several towns were flooded and Interstate 5 was closed for days.  Damage was in the tens of millions of dollars.

The town of Chehalis and I5 were flooded in December 2007

In response to this storm and previous calls for a coastal radar acquistion, Senator Cantwell's staff organized a meeting on March 6, 2008 at Grays Harbor Community College regarding the need for a radar.   A large group attended, including representatives of Congressmen Dicks, Inslee, and Bard, local cities and counties, the private sector, the University of Washingon, local environmental groups, local citizens, and the National Weather Service.  The group overwhelmingly supported a coastal radar acquisition.

A major breakthrough occurred during March 2009, when Senator Cantwell secured a $2 million appropropriation to begin the acquistion of a coastal radar. With that funding, the National Weather Service funded a study on the need for a new radar by some radar experts at the University of Oklahoma and University of Massachusetts.  The final report, released in January 2009, concluded "severe deficiencies exist across the radar gap regions identified in Washington" and that severe storm warning times were "below average."  It stated that additional radar coverage would "improve public safety and reduce the negative economic consequences from hazardous weather."   In short, the report made it clear that a very serious problem of inadequate radar coverage existed and needed to  be corrected as soon as possible.

In late 2009, Senator Cantwell and her allies on the Washington congressional delegation were able to secure full funding for the radar (another 7 million dollars--as we will see not all of this funding will be needed). The new funding allowed the National Weather Service to hire contractors to evaluate several potential sites, with substantial assistance by Dr. Socorro Medina and others at the University of Washington.  In addition, environmental assessments were made of the finalist locations to insure minimal impact to people or wildlife. 

During 2010, the Langley Hill site was determined to be the best by all measures and on March 18th a lease for the land was signed;  days later construction was initiated.   The National Weather Service and its contractors are confident the radar will be fully operational by the end of September 2011, ready for the upcoming storm season.  Keep in mind, 2011-2012 should be a neutral El Nino/La Nina year and such years have brought the most damaging storms on record to our area.

Capabilities of the New Radar

The first question is what will this new radar see?  It is possible to simulate the coverage, including the impact of terrain, and that has been done by a National Weather Service contractor and by UW scientists applying sophisticated radar beam simulation software.  First, here is the NWS map, showing coverage at 2,000, 4000, and 10,000 ft above the radar.

NWS coverage

There is wonderful offshore coverage and we will be able to see even farther at higher altitudes.  Excellent coverage over the Olympics and coastal mountains and into southern Puget Sound.  Dr. Socorro Medina of the University of Washington ran radar simulation software for various elevation angles (the radar rotates at various angles starting at 0 degrees (horizontal), then .5 degree up, 1 degree up, etc).  The left figure below shows the percentage of beam blockage (1.0 is total blockage) for the zero degree angle (only showing the first 150 km).  Even skimming the trees, the lowest beam gives very good coverage offshore--that is what we want since the lowest beam will give us the most range.  Remember radar beams move upwards relative to the surface due the bending of the earth and other reasons, so you want to start as low as possible.  The one-degree elevation angle coverage is to the right.  Almost no blockage except for some of the high Olympics, and those areas will be picked up by the higher elevation angles.

socorro1 one degree

A key point is that our new radar will be the first and only National Weather Service radar in the U.S. to have a zero degree elevation angle.  Here is a figure showing the typical heights of various radar elevation angles for the NEXRAD radar.  You can see how a zero degree angle helps to provide more information at low levels--where we really care about.

radar range

Many of us believe that our radar will convince the NWS radar folks to try low-level scans at other U.S. locations that desperately could use more information in the lower atmosphere.

The new radar will also be one of the first in the country to have dual-polarization, which means that it will send and receive microwaves with both horizontal and vertical orientations (see figure).

Image courtesy of NWS ROC office.

Such capabilitiy enables the radar to measure the shape of precipitation particles and that is important information!  It allows the determination of precipitation type (rain, snow, hail, etc.) since each precipitation type has a different shape.  Imagine:  radar images that clearly show the rain-snow line on our mountains or where snow is falling over urban areas.  Furthermore, dual-pol radars provide far better estimates of precipitation intensity.  Eventually all National Weather Service radars will be polarized, but our will be one of the first.

A Used Radar?

In the appropriation for the radar, Senator Cantwell secured enough funds for a new radar--one reason being that the production line for the NWS NEXRAD radars was closed and no spares were available.  However, the National Weather Service was uncomfortable with maintaining a different radar than NEXRAD and came up with a very satisfactory solution.  It turns out that the Air Force had a NEXRAD unit at one of it bases that was used for training.  The AF agreed to turn this unit over to the NWS for use on our coast.  During the past few months this radar has been extensively modified and serviced (including adding the dual-pol capability) and will be shipped  to Langley Hill during the next several months.  Since it is the same model as the other NWS units, technicians at either the Seattle or Portland offices will be able to quickly service and repair it.

Several of us at the University of Washington were initially concerned about the replacement of a new unit  with one that had been used for years.   We talked to radar experts around the country (unaffiliated with the NWS), all of which assured us that the NEXRAD unit had been so thoroughly updated and modified  over the years that it would essentially be a new unit, with capabilities at least equal to the best modern units on the market.  More assurances to this fact were provided by the National Weather Service Radar Operations Center (ROC), the individuals responsible for the deployment.

Revolutionizing Local Forecasting

Many of us believe that the new radar will greatly improve forecasting skill over the area, particularly for the storms that really count.  But its value goes far beyond that.  Consider just a few examples:

           (1)  Sometimes when low centers, with potentially damaging winds, approach the coast, their positions are not clear from satellite pictures or from the offshore buoys (if they are still working!).  The radar will end this problem.  We will know.   Sometimes our numerical forecast models are in error and major storms approach the coast with little warning.  The new radar should give us 3-9 hrs of warning in such cases--enough time to get the word out and take essential precautions.


A powerful storm struck the Oregon coast with 80 mph gusts in Feb. 2002
with no warning.   A coastal radar will end such forecast problems.

          (2)  As noted above, heavy precipitation sometimes falls on the western sides of the Olympics and coastal mountains, often causing flooding and damage (e.g., December 2-4, 2007).  This radar, for the first time, will give us an excellent idea in real-time of such mountain precipitation, with the dual-pol capability enhancing skill even more.  Expect improved flood warnings from the National Weather Service.  According to Larry Schick, chief meteorologist of the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, the coastal radar will provide critical information for managing dam operations during heavy precipitation events.   Such management is particularly crucial today with questions about the robustness of the Howard Hanson Dam.

          (3)  The citizens of Puget Sound and the Willamette Valley have had the advantage of real-time radar coverage to plan their lives and to organzie their business activities (e.g., painting and pouring concrete).  I for one use the radar to insure generally rain-free bicycle commuting.  The residents of Washington's coast have been denied this boon, but not for long.  By the end of September they will be able to enjoy the considerable advantages of the radar, not the least for providing greatly improved short-term warnings of dangerous weather.

    (4)   The new radar will provide detailed information about heavy precipitation and winds along the Washington coast, and along the dangerous entrances to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Columbia Bars.  It will provide improved weather information to help protect our maritime community and lessen the changes of catastrophic ship beachings, such as with the New Carisa, along the Oregon coast.  Lack of good weather information contributed to the initial beaching of this ship and the failed first attempt to move it offshore.  The Langley Hill radar will help prevent such incidents along the Washington coast.

    (5)  The data from the new radar will be used to improve weather prediction over the entire state.  The radar's winds and precipitation information offshore and along the coast will be used to better intialize computer forecast models that will then predict the inland movement of weather systems.  A good example would be currently poorly predicted snowstorms--knowing the exactly position of coastal low center and troughs will be a major aid. The University of Washington is now developing advanced approaches for using the coastal radar data to greatly enhance local weather prediction models.

Media Coverage

There have been over 100 articles in local newspapers on the new radar and dozens of stories on local radio and tv stations.  A sample of a few (click on links):

King-TV, May 3, 2011
The Oregonian, May 3, 2011
Seattle Times, March 24, 2010
Seattle Times, March 22, 2009
Seattle Times, February 10, 2008
The Olympian, April 20, 2007
UW Press Release, Sept. 10, 2001

Some People Who Deserve Special Recognition

The effort to get the coastal radar has been a long (15 years) and tiring one.  Some individuals have played important roles, particularly during the extended periods when it seemed liked a quixotic quest:

(1) Senator Maria Cantwell.   It is a rare public servant who understands the need for a highly technical piece of environmental prediction equipment, overcomes an unenthusiastic bureaucracy, and finds the necessary funding.  Her intervention made this acquistion possible.

(2) Dr. Socorro Medina.   A highly skilled UW researcher, who is an expert in radar meteorology.  She provided a great deal of technical assistance, such as determining the optimal location for the new radar.

(3) Mr. Ken Westrick.  As a graduate student, Mr. Westrick produced the radar coverage maps shown above that played a critical role in galvanizing support for the radar.  He went on to found and become the CEO of 3-Tier, Inc., a major renewable energy prediction firm.

(4) Arthur Grunbaum. Gray's Harbor resident and organizer of Friends of Grays Harbor, a local environment organization.  He is an asctive supporter and organizer in the Harbor.

(5) James E. Warjone, past chairman and CEO of Port Blakely Tree Farms, who not only provided personal support, but  important political contacts as well.

(6) Dr. Jack Hayes, Director of the NWS, and Don Berchoff, Director of Office and Science and Technology, NWS.   New leadership at the  top of the NWS had a very positive impact on the project.  These individuals have been committed to moving the acquistion forward. 

(6) Local TV Weathercasters.  Several of the local weather folks have been strong supporters, including having their station management lobby for the radar.  These include:  Jeff Renner (KING), Harry Wappler and Rebecca Stevenson (KIRO), Steve Pool (KOMO), and M.J. McDermott (KCPQ).

Acknowledgments also go to Professor Robert Houze, a UW expert on the application of meteorological radar, Tim Crum of the NWS ROC group, who has dircted the NWS acquistion of the unit.

Radar Facts

Identifier:  KLGX
Location:  47 degrees, 7 minutes, .83 seconds N, 124 degrees,6 minutes, 

For More Information

Professor Cliff Mass, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington
(206) 685-0910

The National Weather Service Seattle office has a page with links to several related report.

Next Step: Oregon!

The Oregon coast also has very poor radar coverage.  One idea:  move the Medford radar from its 7500 ft perch on top of Mt. Ashland, where it is above most of the weather, down to the coastline.  I look to Oregon locals to take the lead on this!