It’s mobile radar to the rescue, and not a moment too soon.
This is the story of how a moving research radar will be helping the Lake Charles, Louisiana, National Weather Service (NWS) outpost, whose radar was broken during Hurricane Laura.
The Lake Charles NWS office and radar are both located at the Lake Charles Regional Airport, which also took a significant hit during Laura.
The radar dome sits on top of an over 60-foot tower, and since wind speeds are often stronger the higher you go up, this likely led to its demise.
The problem is, the radar equipment is still not fixed, and another hurricane arrived Friday night in the the same area of Louisiana.
Normally, when one radar site goes out, other nearby NWS offices can step in since many radar sites overlap a little.
“We have multiple radars to use, including one in Houston, Fort Polk, and Slidell,” said Roger Erickson, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the Lake Charles NWS Office.
But those neighboring radars don’t cover the entire area, so what do you do about the gaps left behind?
“For this hurricane, we will have a portable doppler radar as well,” Erickson added.
A mobile radar, that is primarily used for research has been deployed to Louisiana to help fill in those gaps, and also provide high resolution, low-level data as well.
“In this particular case, the Shared Mobile Atmospheric Research and Teaching (SMART) Radar is here to enhance the existing coverage and provide high resolution data where the eye and eyewall are expected to pass,” says Addison Alford, a graduate research assistant at the University of Oklahoma. “In past research deployments of the SMART Radars in hurricanes, we routinely transmit our data to a webpage that can assist the NOAA NWS in their critical mission to provide life-saving warnings to the public.”
Addison will personally be on that mobile radar truck assisting with those critical, life-saving operations.
“University of Oklahoma Professor, Dr. Mike Biggerstaff, is the director of the SMART Radar Program and is leading this particular mission. Mr. Gordon Carrie, a data scientist at the university, has helped deploy the SMART Radars for 11 land-falling hurricanes and is managing the real-time transmission of our data. Hurricane Delta will be my eighth land-falling hurricane with the SMART Radars.”
And they won’t just help with the landfall, they will work with NOAA to determine when to shut down the system.
“That will likely be when Hurricane Delta has moved inland into northern Louisiana, beyond our operational radar range,” Alford explains.
So what exactly can this radar do to help?
“The SMART Radar program routinely makes our typically research-focused data sets available in near real-time to local National Weather Service offices, including research missions into hurricanes,” says Alford.
“We typically set up near the path of a hurricane in our research missions and can help provide additional information to the NOAA NWS,” he adds.
And the team is able to transmit data in near-real time for the NOAA NWS, the National Hurricane Center (NHC), emergency managers, and the public, due to an existing partnership between the Weather Channel, AT&T, and the University of Oklahoma.
AT&T owns WarnerMedia, the parent company of CNN.
“In some hurricanes, we also combine our data with a nearby NWS radar or the other SMART Radar to calculate wind speeds at about 500-800 feet above the surface,” Alford says. “We can make wind maps for use by the NWS during the hurricane and for reference by emergency managers as they are assessing where the strongest winds occurred.”
Mobile radars have been involved in 14 deployments for land-falling hurricanes, but they aren’t limited to just hurricanes.
“Mobile radars are often used for collecting research data sets of severe weather, including supercell thunderstorms that often produce tornadoes, damaging winds and hail as well as hurricanes,” Alford says.
Radar, he says, can provide the highest resolution data, collecting information nearest the surface when a storm is close to the radar location.
“By making a radar mobile, researchers can collect very high resolution data sets of severe weather and hurricanes, which helps us to better understand what we don’t know about the atmosphere and improve forecasts,” he says.
This has happened before
In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing widespread damage with an estimated value of 90 billion dollars and over 2,500 fatalities.
Nearly the entire island was left without power and clean water after power lines and municipal water supplies were lost.
One important thing that was damaged was the San Juan NWS radar.
The radar’s elevation put it in the path of some of the strongest winds in Hurricane Maria, causing it to be battered by as high as Category 5 hurricane level winds.
Those winds ultimately decimated the radar, leaving Puerto Rico without radar data, which is vital in severe weather situations.
The GOES (geostationary earth orbiting satellite) minute-by-minute scans were still experimental at the time, but they became a life-saving tool for the San Juan office.
“We used the rapid scan to help us generate warnings for flooding and tornadoes,” said Ernesto Morales, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for San Juan, Puerto Rico NWS Office.
Thankfully, nine months later the radar was back to fully operational.