Another Doppler radar is needed on West Coast

Construction of a Doppler radar station on Langley Hill in Grays Harbor County has meant a major improvement in weather forecasting on the Washington and north Oregon coasts since it went into operation in September 2011. It cost about $9 million. A similar facility is needed for the next stretch of coastline to the south.

Rambunctious autumn storms this year highlight the need for more atmospheric data and better forecasting on the Northwest coast. Since many of our worst storms come out of the southwest, Doppler weather radar for the central Oregon coast would also benefit many communities farther north.

The mid-October tornado in Manzanita was a warning siren on behalf closing a dangerous gap in the nation’s coastal Doppler system. KGW reported at the time that it is the only stretch of coast in the lower 48 states not covered by the storm-detecting technology.

The only radar to detect the tornado before it hit — giving a couple minutes warning — is located on Langley Hill in Grays Harbor County. Obtaining that facility was a long-term project by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who recognized that Doppler stations located along the Interstate 5 corridor are blocked by the Coast Range, Willapa Hills and Olympic Mountains from seeing much of the weather coming off the Pacific.

Even when the radar located along I-5 does manage to peer down the Columbia channel to the sea, it lacks the resolution to spot some of the tightly packed weather systems that pound our communities and fishing boats senseless.

“Here at the coast where the weather is probably the most volatile… to not have [radar] is a little concerning,” a Manzanita resident said after the tornado. “We got lucky this time around.”

The Langley Hill Doppler has made a big difference in its five years in operation, giving meteorologists the ability to track storms over 100 miles off the coast, allowing for more accurate short-term forecasting. But it doesn’t entirely fix the problem.

Many will remember that weathermen were dramatically wrong in their forecast of a powerful cyclone that was supposed to ravish western Washington and Oregon a day after the tornado hit. Thankfully, in that case, lack of a Doppler radar on the central coast meant storm danger was overestimated. It would be far worse, and not unprecedented, to underestimate a storm coming from the southwest, as happened with the system of typhoons that smashed our area in December 2007.

The Northwest coast’s weather is likely to become more erratic, not less so, as climate change throws unpredictable wild cards into the serious game of forecasting severe winds and flood-producing rains.

Although the nation obviously has a great many expensive needs, plugging this dangerous hole in weather knowledge would certainly save lives. Like New Orleans’ inadequate dikes, this is a risk we know all about and would be foolhardy not to address.

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