La Plata County signs contract to install weather radar – Durango Herald

La Plata County signs contract to install weather radar – Durango Herald

After years of anticipation, the region will finally get more accurate weather forecasts

The new radar system will fill a previously existing radar void in the system and should greatly improve weather forecasts. The system's range will be 200 to 250 kilometres, although this image shows only a small range of obstacles encountered at lower altitudes. (Courtesy of Baron Weather)

After years of discussion and planning, Four Corners area residents can finally expect to receive significantly more accurate weather forecasts because La Plata County has signed a contract to purchase and build a weather radar system.

The Board of County Commissioners signed a contract with Baron Weather of Huntsville, Alabama, on December 2. The county expects contractors to begin construction in 2023 as soon as weather permits, although supply chain shortages could delay the project, county spokesman Ted Holten said. According to the proposal made by Barron's in September, the entire installation process should take about nine months, however, the company has until March 15, 2024, to complete the project.

The cost of the turnkey system shall not exceed $2,508,152.62. The county received a $1.7 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and will pay the remaining $800,000 from the Capital Improvement Fund.

The system will become part of the nationwide mosaic of radar technology used by the National Weather Service to produce forecasts.

The region is currently in a dark zone for weather forecasters. The nearest radar system, located in Grand Junction, cannot see the weather coming into Four Corners because of the Earth's curvature. The radar shoots in a straight line, meaning that by the time the beam hits Durango, it can only see weather at 28,000 feet or higher.

Grand Junction's radar system fails to detect most storms in the Four Corners area due to the Earth's curvature (Durango Herald file illustration)

This has historically caused a problem for weather forecasters. Almost every snowstorm passes below the level of what radar can see, said Jeff Colton, an incident meteorologist with the NWS in Grand Junction.

“The snow is usually very shallow, and the clouds are much thinner or not deep in the atmosphere, so it is very difficult for us to detect snow in the Four Corners,” Colton said. “This will definitely be useful in the winter. It will also be useful throughout the year, because we'll be able to see more of the depth of the storms. We can see the tops of a lot of storms, but this will help fill in that gap and tell us is the storm dry at the lower levels or is it wet.” ?Will it bring rain or will it just be strong winds and outflow, which could be due to fire weather concerns, things like that.

The technology will be contained within a large, round equipment shelter located atop a 70-foot tower at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. The county chose the site in February after much study.

“It's an area that eventually came to prominence and rose to the top because of easy access to facilities,” said Tony Vicari, the airport's aviation director.

The radar will not pass over or around mountains. Given the terrain surrounding the site, there will be some obstructions to the north and south at the lowest elevations, but Colton said that shouldn't be a problem.

Colton said scans at higher altitudes at 2 degrees and 2.5 degrees will be able to see beyond masses of terrain. Summer thunderstorms usually move from the southwest to the northeast anyway, and winter snowstorms come from anywhere between the southwest and southeast.

“This will definitely be an improvement on what we have now,” Colton said.

The system should have an approximate accuracy range of 200 to 250 kilometers, said John Tarleton, vice president of integrated weather systems at Baron Weather. He said the system's internal electronics will be on par with most other National Weather Service radar stations across the country.

Baron Weather will install a 70-foot tower at the Durango-La Plata County Airport on top of which the new radar system purchased by the county will be placed. (Courtesy of Baron Weather)

“I think this will definitely be a big, big improvement for the consumer,” Hultin said.

The impact of improved forecasting will extend beyond just the weather app on your phone. Vicary, the airport's aviation director, also expects to help with staffing for snow removal operations

“We're basically, to some extent, guessing as to when we can expect snow events in particular to end,” he said.

While most aircraft have on-board radar systems that allow them to see weather patterns, this is not always the case. Vicari also said that despite the technology on board, the improving outlook in the region will have other benefits for airlines.

“This will greatly improve the ability of airline dispatch centers to forecast ahead and view convective storms in real time and make better decisions about when to potentially delay planes or take alternate routes — things like that,” he said.

However, Colton cautioned that the benefits will not be immediate. Weather forecasts are produced using a complex set of predictive models that rely on a myriad of data. It will take a year or two before the models adapt to new data inputs and are able to produce more accurate predictions.

“Computers are starting to recognize the patterns and areas where storms typically develop, and that will help our high-resolution computer models that want to develop storms along mountain ranges,” Colton said. “He'll be able to see those storms forming regularly there now. The software is learning, and it's getting smarter as time goes on.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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