A rare look inside National Weather Service Doppler radar


SHALLOTTE, N.C. (WNCT) – It’s not every day that you get an up close and personal look at Doppler radar. It’s a vital tool in the National Weather Service’s mission to help keep you safe. Emergency management and members of the media climbed up 84 stairs to get a rare look inside the big white dome as part of North Carolina’s Severe Weather Preparedness Week.

When severe weather threatens, meteorologists at the National Weather Service spring into action, issuing watches and warnings to alert the public to any dangers. But they couldn’t do it without Doppler radar.

Steven Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington explains: “We certainly wouldn’t have the wind field to look at so I think if we didn’t have this tool, we would have very minimal lead time so instead of a dozen minutes for a tornado warning, maybe no lead time at all or only a matter of one or two minutes.”

Doppler radar consists of a dish that measures over 20 feet across and rotates 360 degrees around a center axis. A short pulse of energy is beamed out both horizontally and vertically. The radar then listens for a period of time for any energy to come back.

Mark Bacon, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, says: “Those pulses of light or radiation bounce back from things like thunderstorms and their contents, the heavy rain, the hail, and show us meteorologists what is going on in that storm.”

With the data, meteorologists are able to identify rainfall rate, hail size, and if there is any rotation within the storm. They can also tell the difference between rain, snow, sleet, and hail based on the energy returned. All of this information is vital to providing as much warning time as possible.

With so many moving parts and a lot of electronics collecting data, technicians keep the radar on a strict maintenance schedule.

Chris McDermott, an electronics technician with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, says: “We have our routine maintenance. We’re out here every month checking out the components and every three months we have oil changes and we’re cleaning some of the components that allow the spinning.”

They’re also tasked, of course, with fixing any problems when the radar goes down.

Doppler radar may get a workout over the next couple of months. Spring severe weather season in North Carolina runs from March through May.

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