Meteorologists have to deal with sharp tongues when forecasts don't pan out, but it's not every day they have to deal with sharp teeth. The National Weather Service released a statement this afternoon announcing that repairs to a Texas weather radar were put on hold "due to complications involving a rattlesnake."
A meteorologist for NWS Fort Worth told The Vane via email that technicians found a small rattlesnake in an equipment cabinet while doing routine maintenance, and out of an abundance of caution, they left the scene and contacted animal control to remove the snake on Wednesday.
The thought of a rattlesnake getting into the site and preventing technicians from doing their job isn't that unusual, considering where most of our weather radar sites are located. This particular radar sits in the middle of farmland east of the small town of Granger, Texas, about 36 miles north-northeast of Austin.
Standing tall over the horizon like a golf ball on stilts, more than 150 National Weather Service radar sites keep watch of the skies across all 50 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. These sites are usually located at airports and forecast offices, but many are found in open fields, wooded areas, on top of hills, and even in the middle of the desert in some parts of the southwest.
The technical name for our country's network of weather radars is NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar), and each individual radar is known as a WSR-88D, short for Weather Surveillance Radar-1988 Doppler. Most populated parts of the country have been covered by weather radar in some fashion since the late 1950s, and the number of sites dramatically multiplied in the 1970s and beyond as we rolled out more and better technology to monitor approaching weather systems.
Weather radar works by sending out a pulse of microwave energy into the atmosphere, which is then reflected by precipitation and often larger objects like airplanes, tornado debris, and even mountains and water towers. The radar site measures the time it takes the pulse to return to the site, as well as the strength of the returning energy, to determine the distance and intensity of the precipitation in the distance.
Beginning in the early 1990s, NOAA upgraded our weather radar sites to include Doppler capabilities. In addition to determining the distance and intensity of precipitation, Doppler weather radar can measure the speed and direction of the objects it detects, effectively giving us the ability to see both preicipiation and winds within a storm.
The density of locations, tall stature of the sites, and sensitive equipment used in these sky-watching lifesavers make them highly susceptible to breakdowns and environmental wear and tear. Radar sites commonly go offline for days at a time due to mechanical failures, which is especially troublesome during severe weather season. Wildlife can also affect the operation (or repair) of these sites, as technicians found out today in Texas and, as planetary astronomer Michael Busch told me over Twitter, a swarm of bees once put NASA's Goldstone Planetary Radar out of commission.
As with any tall structure, this country's Doppler weather radar sites are especially vulnerable to the elements. During the historic flash flood event along the northern Gulf Coast last April, the radar at Mobile Regional Airport took a direct hit from a powerful bolt of lightning, knocking it offline for several days when forecasters needed it the most. Radomes—the protective shell that surrounds the antenna—can and have been damaged by hail and strong thunderstorm winds. The above image shows the aftermath of an intense supercell thunderstorm in Del Rio, Texas, back in May 2001.
NWS Fort Worth told The Vane that, once the snake is removed, technicians should be able to complete their routine maintenance and get the site back up and running. Luckily for local residents, no dangerous weather requiring the use of weather radar is in the forecast for at least the next seven days.