A Tornado on the Oregon Coast Today; In the Coastal Radar Gap

3pm Tuesday…

It appears we got lucky again today; a weak (likely) tornado seems to have moved onshore in the northern part of Manzanita, very close to the October 2016 tornado location.  No one was injured and not much damage either…Mark


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.  Just before Thanksgiving 2015 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.


Good news…a study of radar gaps has been included in new legislation signed this month.  Now we’ll see what the NWS says about our radar gaps in Oregon.

Congressional Statements on Enactment of Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act
President Trump signs the first major piece of weather legislation adopted since the early 1990s into law

WASHINGTON – Leaders on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which exercise legislative jurisdiction in their respective chambers over the National Weather Service (NWS) today, issued the following statements on the announcement last night that President Donald Trump has signed into law H.R. 353, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. The bill includes sweeping reforms to federal forecasting to improve seasonal forecasting, monitoring and clearly communicating information about extreme weather events, the availability of aircraft systems for hurricane tracking, and the use of commercial data that have been collectively called “the first major piece of weather legislation adopted since the early 1990s.”

Radar study – Requires NOAA to identify areas where there are gaps in radar coverage and provide recommendations on the supplemental observations necessary to improve public safety.


Bad news…a study of radar gaps has not yet appeared in public.  It appears to be stuck somewhere in NOAA or Congress.  Too bad!

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

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

30 Responses to A Tornado on the Oregon Coast Today; In the Coastal Radar Gap

  1. Kyle says:

    It’s ‘stuck’ with the (well I won’t cuss on here) holes choosing to Impeach Trump (knowing it won’t go anywhere except to waste time) instead of working to get this stuff done.

    Until you get rid of the losers you are going to get boozers.

    Trump can ‘sign’ it but unless he’s a dictator he can’t make anybody do anything. It’s up to Congress to stop playing stupid mind games and wasting tax paying money.

    If we had anybody else we wouldn’t have not only not get the legislation looked at but we would get more money shuffled to weird programs like elders falling down stairs.etc like in the spending bills.

    • Evan -- Cedar Mill says:

      Don’t make it sound like Trump gives a __ about the weather/radar either.

    • W7ENK says:

      Hey Kyle? Just a little FACT for you here…

      Trump wasn’t president in October 2016, when Mark originally wrote this post. Go take your pills.

  2. W7ENK says:

    Hey, if you find yourself with an extra 2 hours with nothing to do, this is pretty interesting to watch…

    It’s like watching paint dry, only… wetter. 🤔

  3. Roland Derksen says:

    I really don’t care if we get more snow this winter- all I want is some sunshine. We’ve only had 1 day this month without precipitation. Today is another soaker!

  4. J Patrick Moore says:

    Mark, just a thought… any chance that the station(s) would fund a radar for the coast? When I lived in Coos Bay, KPTV was on cable. Just think what the radar would do for your ratings on the coast! Maybe go in 50/50 with a Eugene station for a radar in their area. There are areas where you guys would dominate the news, which means additional ad revenue. At such time that the government would finally decide to have a radar site on the coast, they could simply buy yours.
    The Air Force used to operate a radar station uphill from North Bend, where the boot camp prison is located, I don’t know if the tower is still there… might reduce the cost.

  5. W7ENK says:

    Oh, Dave, Dave, Dave…

    Silly Salesky, he claims that the GFS is “very reliable.”



    • JohnD says:

      Limited meteorological skills. Living on a contract garnered when/how? I personally pay little attention to most of the TV Mets except Mark. Long timer Matt Zaffino is OK.
      Cool when Steve Pierce shows up now and then.
      ALSO young Kelley Bayern seems first rate.
      Studied under Cliff Mass. She presented at the Weather Conference this past Oct.
      But everyone was basically wrong so far!
      Have to say that OR State Dept. Ag met Pete Parsons (was a former TV met—long timer/good guy) stuck it! He uses comparable analog years as his base. Sometimes uncannily right on the money.

    • Joshua Lake Oswego says:

      The NAM-WRF nailed today’s bust. I have been singing its praises for a while now as far as precipitation in the metro area is concerned. This ‘’very wet’’ week is going to bust hard for most of us (per usual). Keep in mind that the average week this time of year has about 1.25’’ of rain.

    • Information says:

      Actually, everyone on Katu’s weather team is horrible. Dave seems like a nice guy (I used to watch him at noon on KGW) but his forecasting is awful. Ditto for koin. Kptv led by Mark is by far the best! Not only for this blog but everything he does for t.v. and Facebook and you can see the trickle down effect for the rest of the team. I’d say kgw is a distant 2nd but much better than the other 2. Matt is a professional and is good not great and Rod is just entertaining but he also gives a lot of insight but does have a tendency to over hype. But I like it. I used to love Jack Cappell especially when he would be looking up North at Yellowknife or somewhere else and say that cold airs gotta go somewhere. It seems that we used to look more to the gulf of Alaska for big events and it seems now we are more inclined to look for “backdoor” events or only Fraser River outflow. Just a thought.

  6. Mike says:

    I wrote my legislators about this a few years ago after reading your post then and heard nothing. We barely held on to the USCG in Newport, too, which is definitely needed. The KPDX NWS radar for Eugene is not very helpful, at the limit of its reach and I have to extrapolate from what I hear up north. Maybe our legislators should visit the memorial to lost fisherman in Newport.

    • Losing the Coast Guard at Newport would have been a decisive blow, so thank God that didn’t happen. I don’t have much faith that we’ll ever see a central/southern Oregon coast or central Oregon Radar. I hope so though. By the way, your blog/website is excellent!

  7. rmlounsbury says:

    I did come to appreciate the lack of radar coverage a long the south coast a couple winters ago. My wife and I made the trip down to Coos Bay for the holiday lights at Shore Acres. While at the coast I could never tell how long it would be dry since the radar was indeed worthless and when the rain came in it was torrential.

    Then on the way back we know it might snow towards I-5 but again the radar wasn’t terribly helpful for planning our trip back and the ODOT traffic cameras where the only helpful thing.

    Hopefully the committee is able to get the resources needed to get a radar installed down there.

    • Jake in Gresham says:

      I’ve found another really good policy for driving on the 101 is just go slow. Most roads if you make an error there’s a tree that will catch your car before things get really bad or an embankment but the 101 is road, gravel and cliff and ded.

      This one time I was driving on it late at night and I had 4WD but the truck is so sturdy I just keep it in 2 wheel. Oh man that night, I had everything I could turned on. There was a storm coming ashore and I think it was the paintings of lost sailors with a sinking sheep just off shore was made of. Total rain sheer and standing water. The road was more a river. I couldn’t even go fast if I wanted too.

  8. WEATHERDAN says:

    Put a fork in our Winter. It’s all over. Winter never showed up. What I want now is a repeat of Summer 2015. Think hotttttt. Peace.

  9. boydo3 says:

    Living now on the south coast, I can’t begin to tell how pitiful the radar is. A week ago we were in the midst of a powerful storm with winds gusting over 94 mph and a squall embedded at the peak of the storm with thunder, lightning, and penny sized hail…but radar was barely showing moderate rain. It was only during the end of the storm that NWS issued a severe T-storm warning. By then it was passed….
    Sounded like a freight train! lol!

  10. W7ENK says:

    Tornado Warning, just issued for the Washington Coast near Hoquiam.

  11. W7ENK says:

    12z GFS end of run shows another blast of epic cold and snow, just two weeks out. So, two weeks from now it should only be 10 days away! And then 10 days after that, it’ll be at the 5 day mark and progressing nicely inward before evaporating away to 37 degree rain.

    So let’s set the schedule now and check out the progress as we go, shall we?

    Day 14 – Monday 2/3:
    Models will be grasping tightly to the idea of cold and snow coming in around Valentine’s Day. PDX in the bullseye.

    Day (14+10) – Thursday 2/13:
    Models will show epic cold and snow at the 5 day Mark, and it will be progressing inward nicely with each successive run. PDX still in the bullseye.

    Day (14+10+3) – Sunday 2/16:
    The whole thing will start falling apart in the models, showing an epic track for either Seattle or Eugene again.

    Day (14+10+3+3) – Wednesday 2/19:
    Hour Zero arrives. If the moisture doesn’t miss us altogether, snowflakes in the air in the higher hills around Portland, but down at river level sees 37 degree rain at the onset of moisture.

    Let’s keep track, this should be fun! 😂🤣😂

    • JohnD says:

      Well, arguably better than than nothing showing up at all. At least a dream-illusion in play to partly offset the mid winter doldrums. And, of course, “What if we DO finally get lucky?!”—central to the dream.

    • W7ENK says:

      18z GFS doubling down with a foot of snow at PDX on 2/5.

      Translated through the same reality filter as applied to the last event, this might give us a snow/rain mix at the lowest elevations (all areas outside The Dome™️) on 2/19.

    • Evan -- Cedar Mill says:

      🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️ Better than nothing I guess…

    • rmlounsbury says:

      Well, right now even with -9C temps at 850mb we still wouldn’t get valley snow because that cold air comes with onshore flow just like our last event. Even more so with strengthening sun.

      If this actually got into the forecast window this would be the 3rd event for the Fall/Winter of 19/20 that we got cold enough air in place for snow to the valley but it came associated with with onshore flow which kills snow at the lowest levels.

      If we could get a couple days of offshore flow (or even northerly flow) with -7C or colder we could cash in. But every time we get a setup this season it comes with milder ocean air.

  12. W7ENK says:

    Yikes!! 😱

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