It’s Time for an Oregon Coast Radar!

The Oregon Coast has the WORST coastal radar coverage anywhere in the lower 48 states and it’s time to change that.  In fact there is no radar located along our coastline.  Local forecasters (private/public/media) have known about it for years.  I’ve blogged about it numerous times and Professor Cliff Mass up at the UW in Seattle has been pushing it for years too.

Important points:

  1. The central and southern Oregon coastline has no radar coverage below 10,000′;  almost all cool-season weather happens below that elevation.
  2. How is it possible Oregon’s 2nd largest city (Eugene) has no coverage below 10,000′???
  3. A tornado or squall line can roar ashore in Lincoln City, Newport, Florence, or Coos Bay with no warning.
  4. A tornado or squall line with damaging winds could move through the Eugene or Roseburg areas with very little indication on radar.
  5. NOAA’s Pacific Fleet is based in a location (Newport) with no good radar coverage…that’s a huge surprise.

#3 happened in the mid 1990s at Lincoln City, and #4 just happened January 16th this year in Lane County (near Eugene).

What Is The Problem?

  The National Weather Service completed a major modernization in the 1990s, a central component being the installation of powerful Doppler weather radars across the country.   Such units, known as WSR-88Ds or NEXRADs, describe precipitation and winds in their environs and have revolutionized forecasting and meteorological research.
  The range of useful radar coverage is controlled by a number of factors.  Terrain blockage is important in mountainous regions like the Northwest.  Furthermore,  the height of the radar beam increases with distance from the radar–resulting in an inability to see important low-level features at distances from the radar.  Under perfect conditions, the maximum range of the WSR-88D for wind information is 230 km (138 miles) and for precipitation sensing roughly twice as far.
  An official National Weather Service map of national weather radar coverage (for precipitation) is shown below.  A second image with a blow-up of the Northwest section is also provided.  These radar coverage maps are valid at 10,000 ft ABOVE THE RADAR SITES (many of which are already thousands of feet above the surface!), not at the surface.  Radar coverage near the surface is far poorer, particularly over the western U.S. where blockage by terrain is significant.  Even for the optimistic 10,000 ft coverage, the Oregon coastal zone is poorly served compared to the California, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic coastal regions. Click for a better view: 


Note there IS a radar on the Washington Coast.  That was just put in 4 years ago after a years-long lobbying effort by a group up there.  A closer view shows the situation here in Oregon:


The “partial coverage” refers to some blocking by mountains in the Coast Range.  The lowest beam from the Portland radar (located on Dixie Mtn. southwest of Scappoose) is intercepted in a few spots by the Coast Range.  We were extremely lucky that Manzanita was not behind one of those “blockages”.  But in general coverage is sketchy on the north coastline south of about Cannon Beach.

What about farther south?  It gets worse.   The Medford radar is even more problematic:  it is located at a very high (7500 ft) elevation to minimize blockage, causing it to miss most coastal and valley precipitation.  The Medford radar is also too far inland to provide useful information over the coast.  One has to go as far south as California (the Eureka radar) to get proper coastal radar coverage!  


You can see the issue here from the image above created by folks up at the UW before the Washington coastal radar was installed.  Very little useful information comes from that Medford radar in the cool season.  Dr. Mass has suggested moving the Medford radar down to the coastline around Coos Bay or Brookings.  However that would leave the largest southwest Oregon population (the Rogue Valley) with very little severe thunderstorm coverage in the summertime.  That’s not going to happen.

Where Would A New Radar Go?

The ideal location would be somewhere between Coos Bay and Newport.  Seems like Florence is a good location, up at a high enough elevation to get a clear path to watch Eugene, but not too high.  Coverage would look about like this:


Much better don’t you think?  How much would it cost?  Maybe $5 million dollars to install and then regular maintenance and operational costs of course.  Is it worth it?  Yes, even one big event could erase some of that cost.  Consider the South Valley Surprise windstorm of February 7, 2002.


A much deeper than expected low pressure center moved onshore just south of Florence, then raced northeast into the Columbia Basin.  The strongest wind gusts in that area since the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 peaked between 70-80 mph.  There was NO WARNING until the wind had already arrived.


Since there was no warning, local utility crews were caught completely off guard.  Nowadays utilities prepare for these storms days ahead of time by positioning their crews/supplies and having extra workers ready to go.  With some warning (even just a few hours) they may have been able to restore power more quickly thus saving a million or two worth of damage?  Just a guess, but you get the point.  That storm cost $10-$12 million dollars damage.  By the way, there was no strong wind in the Portland metro area or Salem because the low pressure passed by to the south.  We just had a breezy westerly wind.  This is just one example of what we’re missing.  A squall line moved into the southern Willamette Valley just this past January 16th, barely detectable (if at all) on Portland’s radar.  Check out the storm report, click for a better view.


Where Do We Go From Here?

First, don’t bother calling the Portland or Medford National Weather Service offices and complaining.  Those folks do all sorts of good work forecasting and keeping on top of our wild winter weather…but they don’t control the money!  It’s a political solution, which means the U.S. Congress has to appropriate the money.

A coordinated effort has begun in our area; that’s why the story has now appeared on two TV stations (and hopefully soon on the other two!).  A group started by the Oregon AMS (American Meteorological Society) will have its first meeting in a couple of weeks.  It involves members of the local media, former television meteorologists, former NWS employees, educators, and many others.

I’ll keep you in the loop as we go through what will likely be a very long, but hopefully productive, journey.   I know there are lots of you on the Oregon Coast and down south in the Valley that want to help out.  The effort to get a Washington coastal radar included support from all sorts of community groups.

The Other Oregon Radar Gap

Of course there is one more huge hole in Oregon radar coverage.  There is no cool season coverage in Central Oregon either.  By that I mean we can’t see anything below 12,000′ or so in the area from Warm Springs to Redmond to Bend to La Pine.  Late last November a foot of snow fell in one evening in Bend and the Pendleton radar showed nothing.  At least the very tall thunderstorms in summer are detectable by surrounding radars, but at some point that area (where 200,000 people live!) needs a radar too.  There are many other gaps in the interior west, so that one might be a tougher sell.

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

Thanks to Dr. Cliff Mass and his NW Radar Problem page for some descriptions used above.


50 Responses to It’s Time for an Oregon Coast Radar!

  1. My grand total of precipitation for the month of October 2016 came to 9.37 inches. That’s my 7th highest amount for that month over the past 42 years. I ended up with 3 days having no rainfall, which is a record for October, but not the lowest for me: January 1982 had no days without precipitation.

  2. W7ENK says:

    11.85″ of rain at my location in Milwaukie this October.

    29/31 days with measurable rainfall.
    1/31 days completely dry.
    1/31 days with only a Trace.

    All other days saw at least 0.03″

    1.82″ on 10/9
    1.56″ on 10/13
    1.52″ on 10/17 with thunderstorms

    A very wet month, indeed!

  3. High Desert Mat says:

    Mark, what happened to your thoughts on this upcoming winter? You said at the end of your last blog topic you were going to tell us all about it.

  4. Scooter says:

    What ever happened to just experiencing the weather as it comes? The more “we” immerse ourselves in a superficial technology driven world, the more our childish immediate gratification ways raise their ugly heads

  5. Snow-lovers should be interested to note that all the storms we have been getting have not been good for the health of our nemesis The Blob. Storms create waves, waves create mixing, and mixing dilutes the warm surface water of The Blob with colder water from below.

    Cliff Mass mentions this in his forecast for a near-normal snow year this winter: .

    • That’s good to know. Now- if I could only remember what a “normal” snow year is(or was)! 🙂

    • My own winter forecast is for near to slightly above normal temperatures, and near to above normal precipitation.

      Why that temperature range? Neutral year, plus global warming loading the dice slightly to above-normal temperatures. Why that precipitation range? Neutral years tend to be close to normal, but we’ve had an exceptionally wet October, which definitely biases the overall outcome to the wetter side of normal.

      Completely unscientifically, I have a hunch we will see one garden-variety (not super severe or epic) arctic blast this winter. It will come right on the heels of a Pacific storm system, meaning that for at least some it will begin with a lowland snow event (starting out as wet sloppy snow, ending as colder, dry snow). Then a day or maybe two of cold, dry clear weather followed by a Pacific front that warms things up and melts the snow. Portland may well get a silver thaw from the latter.

      Maybe 2 to 4 inches of lowland snow and maybe 1/4″ of ice before it warms above freezing. A genuine winter storm, but nothing truly epic like 2008. It will be wintry for days, not weeks.

  6. Joshua Downtown PDX says:

    October will end up warm and wet compared to average. 21 low temps at 50 or higher. November looks to be quite warm and dry through the 1st half of the month. No lows in the 30s yet and none on the horizon. 1st freeze not until 2017? Who knows? Hopefully we will transition straight to winter weather after this upcoming lull.

  7. runrain says:

    With this mornings deluge, I bet we got a real good shot at the October rainfall record.

  8. W7ENK says:

    847 PM PDT SUN OCT 30 2016

  9. Yea NEXRAD RTX, Down again…

  10. Jason Hougak says:

    All the mild wet weather has really depleated the fresh mountain snow. The nice early season base that was started is almost gone. The cams at Timberline, Bachelor, and Crater Lake showed a good foot of snow but have dwindled. While California has a Winter Storm Warning in the Sierras it just rain at the resorts in Oregon. We need that moist gulf of Alaska NW flow.

  11. Doesn’t appear we will catch up to you folks down there as far as getting a new record amount for October rainfall. I’ve measured 8.63 inches up to last night. That’s above normal but far from being the highest. What does appear likely is we’ll set a record for fewest dry days in the month. I’ve had only 3.

    • I wish I had kept better track, but I was out of town for the first half of this month. I bet I’ve had 11 or 12 inches total in October. There’s been at least four days this month with 1+ inch of rain, and one with 2+. Wet, wet, wet!

    • runrain says:

      I’ve got mushrooms the size of redwoods growing in my yard!

  12. Sounds like more TLC is needed for KRTX

  13. Windsday says:

    Don’t look at The Weather today as they are in example of what legalized pot will do to you when addicted without control.

    Luckily they are not doing that on the open road and risk killing you because of some stupid BS that’s only in their mind.

    On a side note it’s good to see Alaska being cold as that is what will allow Artic air down to the lower 48 as otherwise any Artic Air in models will always be false.

    You can’t have winter weather without Canada/Alaska being cold first and models seem to fail to put that in their inputs when forecasting beyond Day 10 causing many frustrations among winter lovers.

    Until they start to input little details like that and natural climate change we will continue to have crap forecast models. Then and only then will we start to have reliable forecasts for winter time even in fantasy land will be a lot more believable allowing for (10 Day Casts) to be reliable.

    Maybe even the 15 Cast.

  14. Kevin says:

    How much would this cost?… How many people have died due to severe weather we could not quickly enough identify and warn them in the non-radar area?

    Thousands die every year because of driving cars. It’s what we live with. There is a ratio there we accept. If it costs tens of millions for a weather radar and no deaths? Sorry, not borrowing more money from China to put in a weather radar – it simply does not justify.

    Everyone in government has their important pet projects, and this is one of them… but I do love the weather.

  15. Paul D says:

    I wonder if we’re ignored because there are so many other parts of the USA that have extreme weather events and our weather is rarely extreme in comparison.

    • JJ78259 says:

      I travel the state of Texas and I use the radar a lot in the spring to stay out of the way of severe storms very handy! Great weather in San Antonio this weekend true Weather Dan Weather showing up in the upper 80’s. Looks like Portland will go over 8 inches of liquid sunshine!

    • Our biggest windstorms have central pressures and winds comparable to Category 3 hurricanes.

    • Windsday says:

      Except really narrow pressure areas making it hard to forecast without reliable coverage of geography.

      Models need to take into history surrounding previous lows that caused the winds in order to forecast future ones and where the most damage could occur based on local terrain and what else was going on around the low.

      Storm track/path isn’t all there is to it. Every little detail just about will need to be monitored that produced severe lows and our wind models are pretty lame in that regards.

      In other words it’s far from an open/shut case on predicting severe weather on the west coast especially on the coast.

      We have just graduated to the iron age.

  16. W7ENK says:

    When I win a huge lottery jackpot, I’ll just pay for it outright and write it off on my taxes.

    You’re welcome.

  17. Jason Hougak says:

    Hey Mark why don’t you start a fundraiser and or some event that people sponsor to raise funds for the radar. This same topic always comes up every year about having a blind spot on our coast. Maybe have a coast run where you run the whole coastline to fund the radar😆

    • Scooter says:

      Great Idea, so I think you should run with it, Mark probably can manage his own life.

    • Jason Hougak says:

      I don’t really care much about a blind spot in the radar. Mark just brings it up every year so I thinking of a way for him to get it done. As for a run, I join if it were to happen👍🏼

  18. Lee Wilson says:

    Do this, tell you leadership, get you the radar or lose their position where they are seated.

    Threaten their jobs…or…bigger yet…threaten lawsuits if they don’t give you the radar needed. .seems suing is the way Oregonians do thungs…So a storm hits..Sue those that have the ability to prevent this when damage happens. .

    After all..Every one has a right to be safe do they not?

    • Windsday says:

      If this were anywhere in California back in the 80s when the economy was much better before political BS ruined it having a radar like this would’ve been no problem.

      Not only would it have been no problem but it would’ve been completed in no more then 1 year at the most as Californians in those days were fast at getting projects done once they saw a need.

  19. Lee Wilson says:

    Then I owe guys an apology for snapping like an angry dragon at you guys.

    Maybe people need to shoot the sneaky storms and send it to our politicians.

    Further more everyone’s safety should come First.

    So like the hail storm I had posted was not predicted or seen because of the holes in radar coverage.

    Now that makes sense.

  20. Robert Brown says:

    Sure seems like federal funding should be available, but is there any thought to private funding? If a utility company could save millions from one storm, I’m sure other companies would benefit too and could pool monies together. Fox could even buy one and have exclusive rights to it and sell or lease images to recover the costs.

    • Nobody else’s NWS radar is privately funded. Everybody else in the lower 48 has better radar coverage to their south and west than most of Oregon does. And Oregon is already a net loser when it comes to Federal taxes (sends more to Washington DC than it gets back). Why voluntarily settle for a raw deal?

  21. orwxguy says:

    Obviously we’ll see what happens in the next couple weeks, but do you think that congress would really get behind funding this given it seems they want to do more cutting at the NWFO level to create more of a “regional” system? It would sure be nice if they would do something to give us more coverage in the south Valley area.

  22. Seems like the PNW always gets the short end of the stick.

  23. It will take getting Oregon’s Congressional delegation on board to press for the necessary funding to be allocated. The Langley Hill coastal radar was only built after a multi-year effort towards the same end in Washington state.

  24. Tyler Mode in Battle Ground says:

    It’s a huge investment with enormous benefits for safety and better forecasting for other purposes. Can’t really think of a con!

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