The accidental invention of the weather radar during World War II was one of the most important advances we’ve made in keeping people safe from severe storms. Today, the United States is covered by more than 150 Doppler radar sites, but there are some pretty dangerous gaps in that coverage. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) recently introduced a bill ordering the construction of new radar sites to cover some of the country’s most vulnerable cities, but the bill might be worded just cleverly enough that it applies to exactly one city, which is coincidentally the largest in Burr’s home state.
The bill, known as the “Metropolitan Weather Hazards Protection Act of 2015,” requires the National Weather Service to install and maintain radar sites within 55 miles of all cities in the United States with a population of 700,000 or more. The law would also require the agency to take into consideration nearby counties that are heavily populated but don’t have adequate radar coverage below 10,000 feet.
That 10,000-foot level is a big deal when it comes to tracking dangerous thunderstorms.
Doppler weather radar works by sending pulses of microwave radiation into the atmosphere, some of which reflects off of particles like raindrops, snowflakes, and hailstones. The strength and timing of the return beam can tell us important things about the precipitation, such as its location, intensity, and velocity—the latter of which, the “Doppler” part of Doppler radar, tells us wind speed and direction—as well as the size and the shape of the objects detected, letting us know if the radar is seeing different things like heavy rain, huge hail, or even debris from a tornado.
Since the radar sends out the beam of radiation at a fixed angle, and the Earth is curved, the beam of energy gets higher and higher off the ground the farther it gets from the radar site. After a few dozen miles, the radar beam is more than 10,000 feet off the ground—enough to show you some details about storms at a distance, but not enough to give you a good look at what’s going on at the lower levels, an area that’s critical to detecting tornadoes.
That’s kind of a big deal!
I’ve written about this issue at length for the Capital Weather Gang (1 | 2); both posts are good reads (of course!), but they both boil down to the fact that we need to dramatically expand our network of weather radars in order to improve public safety and acquire a better understanding of severe and hazardous weather.
(The radar image above is from the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado on April 27, 2011. The radar beam was about 1,500 feet above ground level at the point of the tornado.)
If you’re reading this somewhere near a relatively populous city, you probably have adequate to just-okay radar coverage; in other words, the radar can see enough of a storm that most of us shouldn’t have to worry too much about a surprise tornado dropping on our heads. The only major city in the United States where you don’t have that luxury is in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It’s hard to believe, but Charlotte (pop: 731,000) is larger than Atlanta (pop: 422,000), though the metro area of the latter (5.4 million) blows the former (2.3 million) out of the water. This makes Charlotte proper the second-largest city in the southeast (behind Jacksonville, FL), and it’s woefully exposed to the elements when it comes to radar coverage.
The nearest three radar sites to Charlotte are in Greenville and Columbia in S.C., and Raleigh farther up in N.C. Each site is more than 80 miles from the center of the Queen City—Greenville’s radar is 81 miles away from downtown, Columbia’s is 88 miles as the crow flies, and Raleigh’s is an almost-useless 135 miles away. This starves Charlotte and its surrounding areas of critical low-level radar coverage that can detect smaller tornadoes, potentially saving lives in the process.
Back in 2012, an EF-2 tornado touched down in the Charlotte suburbs, damaging nearly 200 homes and injuring several people. There was no tornado warning ahead of the storm because meteorologists didn’t see the rotation. The tornado was so shallow that it barely showed up on radar; the twister quite literally slipped under the radar.
Richard Burr, being the senior senator from the great state of North Carolina, introduced this bill entirely as a way to cover Charlotte with a shiny new weather radar. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a completely necessary addition to our existing network. It’s inexcusable that such a large metro area is susceptible to a damaging, potentially lethal tornado going unnoticed.
However, the bill is worded in such a way that it might not help anyone other than those who live near Charlotte. Remember, the bill said that the National Weather Service must install new radars near cities with a population of at least 700,000 that aren’t within 55 miles of an existing radar.
At the 2010 census, there were 18 cities in the United States with a population of 700,000 or greater:
- New York City — 8.2 million
- Los Angeles — 3.8 million
- Chicago — 2.7 million
- Houston — 2.1 million
- Philadelphia — 1.5 million
- Phoenix — 1.4 million
- San Antonio — 1.3 million
- San Diego — 1.3 million
- Dallas — 1.2 million
- San Jose, CA — 945,000
- Austin — 790,000
- Jacksonville, FL — 821,000
- Indianapolis — 820,000
- San Francisco — 805,000
- Columbus, OH — 787,000
- Fort Worth — 741,000
- Charlotte, N.C. — 731,000
- Detroit — 713,000
Of those 18 cities, only three are contenders for new radars according to the language of this bill: Charlotte, N.C., Columbus, Ohio, and New York City. The rub is in the way the National Weather Service determines it should go about measuring the distance from the radar site to the city in question.
If they measure from the existing sites to the middle of downtown, all three of the aforementioned cities would get new radars under the proposed legislation. If they measure from the radar to the closest city limit, then only Charlotte gets a new toy to play with.
The largest city on the list is New York, home to more people than 39 of the 50 states. The city has two radar sites that monitor its skies—one in central New Jersey (KDIX) a few miles west of Toms River, and one out near the tip of Long Island (KOKX).
New York City is such a large district that the core vs. boundary issue will wholly determine if they get a new radar under Burr’s bill. If they only measure to the closest city limit, then New York is disqualified. The distance from KDIX to the southern tip of Staten Island is only 36 miles, and the distance from KOKX to the edge of Queens is 46 miles, both short of the 55-mile threshold.
If they use Manhattan as the benchmark, however, then the area would get a new radar under the proposed bill. Lower Manhattan is just over 55 miles from KDIX and about 61 miles from KOKX.
It’s a similar situation out in Columbus, Ohio. The closest radar to Columbus is at the airport in Wilmington. If they measure from the radar to the nearest city boundary, it’s only 48 miles, but if they measure to the downtown core, it’s 57 miles.
It remains to be seen if this bill will even see the light of day, but it’s an encouraging sign that it was introduced by a Republican in a Republican-controlled chamber. Burr’s political affiliation should keep any fight over this bill to a less-than-hostile level, and it might even make it to the floors for a vote. It’s Congress. Who knows!
We’ll hear more about the legislation in the future, but as it stands, Charlotte is one step closer to getting a new weather radar to keep its residents safe. As for everybody else, we’ll have to see what kind of tape measure games the powers that be decide to play.