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What an NWS radar would mean for Charlotte

Tree down in road
Gaston County Police
Damage in Gaston County after severe storms on Wednesday, May 8, 2024.

Charlotte is one of the largest cities in the country without a National Weather Service radar. The closest one is in Greer, South Carolina.

Congressman Jeff Jackson hopes to change that with a bill he introduced that would give areas like Charlotte first priority, as the federal government prepares to roll out a new generation of weather radars.

“Our nearest NEXRAD radar is roughly 100 miles away, which makes it very difficult to have accurate forecasts for especially low-altitude storms and fast-moving tornadoes,” Jackson said.

The bill has passed the House and now goes to the Senate.

Joining me now to talk more about what a radar would mean for Charlotte is WCNC meteorologist Brad Panovich.

Marshall Terry: Dumb it down as best you can for me. What do these National Weather Service radars do? And don't we have radar coverage anyway from local TV stations and other sources?

Brad Panovich: Yeah, that's often a common question and comment that we get from people. The problem is if you got to think about radar — I think everybody has radar on their phone now, they see it on TV and they just think it's uniform coverage. But in reality, the way that Doppler radar works for weather is kind of like cell phone towers. You know if you have a cell phone tower nearby, you're getting five bars, right? If the cell phone tower’s really far away or you're in a hole of cell coverage and you have one bar, maybe two bars, maybe no bars, you know, sometimes calls break up, sometimes you lose text messages. That's kind of where we are in Charlotte as far as radars are concerned, they're so far away from us that we're only getting the weakest returns from the radar.

So, in a city like Charlotte, that means the radar beam goes out in a straight line, but because we live on a curved Earth, as you get farther from the radar site, the Earth actually curves away and the radar beams get higher and higher in the sky. By the time you get to Charlotte, oftentimes the radar beam could be at 4,000, 5,000, 6,000, sometimes 8,000 feet above the ground, which can detect clouds and rain, but often misses the lowest level features like downbursts and tornadoes and things that happen close to the ground — where all of us live.

Terry: So maybe this is an obvious answer then. If Charlotte gets one of these radars, what does that mean for weather forecasting? I'm especially thinking about forecasting on days with deadly, fast-moving storms like we had last week.

Panovich: The biggest thing is it would help the warning process. So we're able to detect low-level rotation quicker. The other thing that I think is missed in this [is that] not only does it help you detect storms, it also would help reduce the false alarm rate because we can't see the low levels very well. Oftentimes, you got to guess and say, well, I'm not taking a chance, we're going to issue a tornado warning because I don't know what's happening below that, so that tends to increase our false alarm rate, which in reality is just as bad as not warning at all, because then it desensitizes people to the warnings, and they take them less seriously.

So it really is an important tool for severe weather warning and it's just not tornadoes. It's straight-line winds, it’s also winter weather and also rainfall estimates. If you have better coverage from the ground to the top of the cloud, you can estimate rainfall. So, for flash flooding, it's a big deal as well.

Terry: Do you know how these new generation radars will be different than the ones in use now?

Panovich: That's a great question because we don't really know the technology of the new radar. There's something called phased array radar. The military uses this to track missiles, to shoot them down. There's probably going to be something similar to that, but the actual technology has not been fully confirmed on what that next generation is going to be.

The thing to remember, the current radars, we refer to them as 88Ds, and the reason that 88 is there, they were designed in 1988 and they were installed in the ‘90s. So we're way behind the curve. The previous generation was built in the ‘70s. So, this is going to be a much longer gap between generations of radar. Now they've been upgraded, but they're basically just fixing an old model.

The next generation, which is probably still decades away, we don't fully know what that radar is going to be because some of that technology is still currently being developed.

Terry: Why doesn’t Charlotte have a National Weather Service radar already?

Panovich: You know, I keep asking myself that every year. It really happened in the ‘90s, when they reorganized the National Weather Service. There used to be a National Weather Service office in Charlotte. It was out at the airport. In the reorganization process, it kind of was a political battle between states and politicians, like who wanted the Weather Service office closer to their district and for some reason, Charlotte kind of lost out, and it got moved to the upstate of South Carolina.

Now, I don't know this for sure, but the political rumors are always like there was some horse trading between North and South Carolina senators about getting more in eastern North Carolina, and for that reason, one got moved to South Carolina. No one really knows, but for some reason, you know, we ended up being this major metropolitan area that does not have a radar within 50 miles of its Center City.

And there's only one other city I know that’s like that — Columbus, Ohio, a very similar fast-growing city where the radar is really, really far away.

Terry: The issue of Charlotte lacking one of these radars has come up before. How optimistic are you that it will finally happen with this new bill?

Panovich: I feel like we've been working on this forever. I think that the bill that we have now is actually a great bill. The problem is, it's really for the next generation of radar. And as I mentioned earlier, it's gonna take decades for that to happen. So at least we've got our foot in the door for that.

There are other things we’re working on in the private-public sector to help fill this gap between now and then that hopefully will give us some coverage until that happens, but this is the first time in the whole battle of trying to get a radar here that we've had both state, federal and local politicians all on the same page.

So, I feel like we're battling this on several fronts now, and that makes me more optimistic that something will happen.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.