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Doppler down: Questions about aging weather radar technology

Questions about aging weather radar technology (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - In the first part of the Local 12 investigation “Doppler Down,” Duane Pohlman exposed how a lightning strike caused the Doppler radar at National Weather Service in Wilmington to quit working nearly two dozen times this year.

While the problem is now fixed, the radar still relies on technology that is two decades old.

Local 12 Meteorologist Scott Dimmich asks whether it's time to invest in new technology that can track storms more accurately.

“There's a lot of people in the Cincinnati, Dayton, and the Columbus area that are depending on us. I can't let those people down, and I don't believe in excuses,” said Ken Haydu, the meteorologist in charge at the NWS Wilmington office.

After weeks of costly repairs and radar outages, it appears issues with the National Weather Service in Wilmington's radar have been resolved, but the outages raise questions about this aging technology.

The old radar has what would be like a large satellite dish up in this dome and that satellite dish is spinning around 360 degrees many times a minute.

It does one complete volume scan of the entire atmosphere every 4 to 6 minutes.

While the old system does warn us, there is a new and better way to track storms, a new technology the US Navy developed a phased array radar.

“It's amazing. There's no moving parts in this thing. Our other radar is dancing and moving all over the place, and the phased array has no moving parts,” said Haydu.

Here's how it works: A series of screens inside the dome send out signals at different frequencies in different directions at the same time.

“What it takes this radar four to six minutes to do, that phased array can do in less than a minute,” said Haydu.

It also has the ability to target specific storms or areas of potentially dangerous weather.

“Let's say you're a severe thunderstorm. The electronics will just gear in on you and give you a continuous loop of how you are changing over time. This will significantly have the potential to increase tornado lead times,” said Haydu.

Phased array radar isn't just a storm tracking tool; it's a high tech piece of equipment which can be used by several government agencies.

“The FAA can use it to track their airplanes. They won't need their own radar. The military can use it to track the non-commercial flights,” said Haydu.

It is a much better radar, but there's a problem. The government has no plans to deploy a phased array radar network anytime soon and instead will upgrade the current network.

“This upgrade is a major technology advancement. It's going to the delete the obsolete technology of the signal processor,” said Haydu.

This and other upgrades mean the radar in Wilmington will be going down again in the next month and three other times in the next five years.

So, would you rather your current radar with upgrades or would you rather have a phased array?

“There's no doubt I'd rather have the new technology that can help me protect life and property and give me significant tornado lead times. But that choice is not mine,” said Haydu.

While phased array radar will eventually come, the old radar, with upgrades, will remain the eye of the weather service for at least the next two decades.

“Congress has provided us with a great radar and a way to kind of get that thing even more modernized through the 2030s and I certainly accept that, but the new technology is awfully enticing,” said Haydun.

Because a phased array radar network would require millions of dollars in congressional funding, Local 12 is reaching out to Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman to ask if they would be willing to push for that funding.

We'll let you know what they say.

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