The new Doppler radar on Langley Hill near Copalis Beach has proved invaluable during the current winter storm, regional forecasters say, enabling them to more accurately predict where the heaviest snowfall will hit.
“It’s been a great observational tool with regards to watching the precipitation as it’s approaching the coast and moving onshore,” said Ted Buehner, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Seattle.
It helped show that the brunt of the current storm would produce more accumulation over Southwest Washington.
“It’s definitely helping, especially in looking at what’s coming in,”said University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences professor Cliff Mass, who writes a popular weather blog. “It can tell you what’s happening right now and in the next few hours. I can look right now at the Langley Radar and just see the bands of showers coming, minute by minute. You have that now, and it’s huge for people living where you are.”
Buehner said the radar doesn’t provide long-term forecasting ability, but it does show real-time developments in the weather systems.
“Since the weekend, when we had our upper-level low move over the Pacific Northwest and bring the much colder, more unstable, showery-type precipitation, it’s been a great resource,” Buehner said. “You combine that with the Camano Island radar and the Portland radar in the interior, it really gives you a sense of the big picture.”
The Langley Hill radar went into operation last August, with full operation in September. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association facility houses a NEXRAD high-power, high-resolution, long-range Doppler radar that is one of the first in the country to get upgraded with dual-polarization technology that scans weather systems vertically and horizontally, allowing better storm tracking. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell helped secure $9 million in funding for the project.
Mass lobbied for the radar for more than 20 years, and called the new facility “wonderful” in weather like the coast is now having. Not only can it be a tool to confirm long-range forecasting, it also can be a tool for when forecasts are going wrong, Mass noted.
“If the low is coming in at a different place than forecast, six hours out the coastal radar will tell us that,” he said.
Mass said the low front of the storm on Tuesday began moving farther south than first forecast, which brought Southwest Washington close to its heaviest accumulations since the winter of 1996.
The more accurate forecasts have helped Grays Harbor County road crews respond with their plows and sanders where they are most needed, said Ron Esses, county engineer.
“It’s been great with that extra information and the maps are so much more detailed,” Esses said.
Even with the radar, Buehner at the Weather Service said it still allows for just a 6-hour window on what the incoming weather is like.
For longer-term snow forecasting, Buehner said the Weather Service has relied on so-called Hurricane Hunter aircraft based in Hawaii, which make an annual check on the Pacific Ocean basin at this time every year.
“Instead of launching a weather balloon from the surface and having it go up in the atmosphere, measuring wind direction and speed, temperature and moisture profile, in this case you are dropping the instruments from an aircraft from aloft,” he said. “You are getting the same type of information but from top to bottom in the other direction.”
About 15 of the weather balloons were dropped on Monday in the vicinity of the system that eventually moved over all of Western Washington.
“They provide additional information in a very data-void area — the Pacific Ocean,” Buehner said. “Every piece to the puzzle is very helpful.”