Congressman wants to fix Charlotte’s weather radar problem
U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson is calling for a decades-old radar gap in the Carolinas to be fixed.
WASHINGTON — Political movements aimed at closing the gap in weather radar coverage around Charlotte are advancing.
U.S. Congressman Jeff Jackson secured amendments to the reauthorization of the weather law that “require (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) to identify priority locations for new systems, and use existing radar gaps as criteria,” Jackson’s office said in a statement on Thursday.
In the coming years, NOAA and the National Weather Service intend to deploy a new network of weather radars nationwide. The system will replace old radar networks dating back to the 1980s.
Jackson’s amendment would require locations that are 75 miles or more from current weather radar to be considered “priority” locations.
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Charlotte has no NWS radar
Charlotte does not have the WSR-88D, which is the name of the full-power weather radars operated by National Weather Service offices around the country. The radars were deployed in the 1990s, and as the “88” in their name indicates, they use technology that was formalized in the 1988 design.
The closest WSR-88D to Charlotte, “KGSP,” is located at Greer, South Carolina. The radar is operated by the National Weather Service’s Greenville-Spartanburg office and is located about 80 miles from uptown Charlotte.
A little further away from Charlotte is KCAE in Columbia, South Carolina; “KRAX” in Raleigh, North Carolina; and KFCX in Blacksburg, Virginia, which is operated by the National Weather Service office in Roanoke. KMRX operates out of Morristown, Tennessee but is limited by mountainous terrain.
After dangerous winds killed 37 people and injured 20 others in a 1994 plane crash in Charlotte, Charlotte Douglas International Airport acquired “terminal Doppler radar.” TCLT, as it is known, is located in northwest Charlotte and monitors the weather surrounding the airport. The radar is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration and not the National Weather Service.
Although useful for local weather, the terminal radar is smaller and produces fewer images than its WSR-88D counterpart.
Charlotte is experiencing what Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at WCNC in Charlotte, calls a “radar hole.” While some radar coverage is still present, the signal is less perfect than preferred in places like Charlotte, Monroe, Concord, Salisbury, Statesville and Hickory.
The curvature of the Earth causes the radar beam to move away from the Earth as it travels. For KGSP in South Carolina, the beam rises a thousand feet above Spartanburg, and South Carolina rises to seven thousand feet when it reaches Charlotte.
Some weather events, such as tornadoes, can literally slip under the radar, as the radar beam is too high to see that part of the storm. That’s what happened when four people were injured by an EF-2 tornado in Harrisburg, North Carolina, in 2012.
Harrisburg, located in Cabarrus County, along with neighboring Concord, Salisbury and Statesville, is at the heart of the radar gap, which is created when comparing the four adjacent WSR-88D radar sites.
While this gap has prompted some to build their own radar sites over the years. Panovich is calling for a solution publicly, he told The Washington Post in 2020.
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Keeping old technology alive
Until new radar solutions are explored, the National Weather Service must keep its older generation of weather radars online. This is where the Service Life Extension Program, also known as SLEP, comes into play.
The national program is modernizing the radars with the aim of keeping them operational until 2030 and beyond. The process, overseen by the National Weather Service’s Radar Operations Center, upgrades key components including the signal processors, the transmitter and the base that holds the radar dish in place as it rotates 360 degrees.
Base replacement is one of the four stages within the SLEP system. It takes two weeks and a crane to lift the 15,000-pound base into place.
During the first part of 2023, technicians replaced all existing stanchions on WSR-88D aircraft serving both North Carolina and South Carolina.
Across the country, the SLEP project is scheduled to be completed on the nation’s 159 operational radars by the end of 2023. The project costs the National Weather Service, the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration $135 million.
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Radar in northern South Carolina jumped off the line when contact was unexpectedly lost on December 31. The Taurus was damaged and was no longer able to rotate the radar over the base. Without the ability to rotate, radar cannot obtain a 360-degree view of the sky.
A photo from the National Weather Service shows metal shavings from destroyed bull equipment. After 27 years, the bull gear needed to be replaced, a project that also involved removing the base.
So instead of waiting until March, the radar at Greer will be repaired urgently.
While this work was originally scheduled to be performed in March as part of the SLEP project, technicians worked early to complete this work ahead of schedule.
Building a stronger radar network
Anytime a weather radar goes down, the surrounding network of weather radars needs to be tapped. While dependency is part of network planning, offline radar only amplifies existing data gaps.
NOAA is exploring options for new weather radars. In the years after 2030, technology such as phased array could be used to build a new generation of radars. However, the details and timeline have not been discussed yet.
Support from Jackson and other lawmakers could mean Charlotte is considered a host city when the grid is repaired in the coming decades.
Since his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jackson has been calling for better radar coverage in Charlotte.
The Democrat from North Carolina’s 14th Congressional District proposed House Bill 4912 in July. The bill calls for building a radar near Charlotte.
Jackson knows his time in federal office may be limited.
“I have been formally withdrawn from my congressional district by a small group of politicians,” Jackson said in October of North Carolina’s newly redrawn districts.
He has already announced his intention to run for North Carolina Attorney General to compete against what he calls “blatant corruption.”