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Lawmakers Push to Fill Gaps in Doppler Radar Coverage for Better Severe Weather Detection

An effort is underway to fill a radar hole in Charlotte, North Carolina, and similarly populated areas in the United States to better detect and protect the public from severe weather.

Companion bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that, if signed into law, would require the National Weather Service (NWS) to install a Doppler radar within 55 miles of a city with a population of over 700,000.

Charlotte has a population of 809,958, according to the 2014 population estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The National Weather Service should be treating all major metropolitan areas the same, but weather experts agree that the current Doppler technology locations in North Carolina are insufficient and do not give meteorologists the tools they need to detect and warn citizens of potentially dangerous weather," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said in a news release.

"As we know from the tornado of 2012 that damaged up to 192 homes in the Charlotte area, this is a significant public safety problem," Burr said.

Charlotte is currently covered by an NWS Doppler radar located 94 miles away in Greer, South Carolina.

However, no other city of Charlotte's size currently has a radar situated more than 58 miles away, Burr said. The current location results in a majority of the metropolitan area being without radar beam coverage below 10,000 feet because of the Earth's curvature and distance from the radar site.

"I cannot stress enough the need for radar coverage in one of the country's fastest growing regions here in the Carolinas," WCNC-TV Chief Meteorologist Brad Panovich wrote in a letter of support released by Burr's office. "Not only would this provide government forecasters better information on severe weather but (also) numerous private sector meteorologist and aviation interests in the region."

Adding a Doppler radar to the region would be helpful for meteorologists, AccuWeather Southern Weather Expert Frank Strait said.

Coverage for the region, however, has improved since the 1996 installation of a Terminal Doppler Weather Radar (TDWR) at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Strait said.

The radar, which the NWS can use, was installed as a result of the 1994 wind-shear-related crash of USAir Flight 1016 that killed 37 people.

"That system does have its limitations in many ways; it's not as good as the NWS radars at Raleigh, Greensboro-Spartanburg and Columbia," Strait said. "But its presence helps fill the radar hole."

The TDWR has higher resolution than NWS Doppler radar and can scan much faster, which can lead to faster identification of severe storms, Strait said.

Because of the quick spin-up and low height of the Charlotte tornado in 2012, no warnings were issued since it wasn't detected on the Greer radar, Strait said. The airport Doppler would have detected it but it was in a slower scanning mode at the time.

There may be less-expensive ways to fill the radar hole in Charlotte and other areas of the country, including the use of test radars such as the ones being tested by the University of Massachusetts and its academic partners in the Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) project.

Networks of lower-cost Doppler radars have been established, one of those in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the CASA website.

"A new Doppler may be the right way, but there may be other alternatives," Strait said. "Because of the cost, sometimes you need to think ‘outside the box.'"

Other areas that could use better Doppler coverage include Tyler, Texas; the Harrisburg-Lancaster-York, Pennsylvania, region; and the Triad (Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point) area of North Carolina, Strait said.

The bills are currently in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.