New Doppler dome will help forecast coastal storms

By:  Susan Gilmore, The Seattle Times
Source: The Seattle Times

Meteorologists will be better able to forecast storms on the Washington coast with help from a new coastal Doppler radar dome that has been erected in Grays Harbor County near Copalis Beach.

The dome has just been affixed to the top of a 130-foot tower, said Ted Buehner, of the National Weather Service, who received a call from the construction-site manager as he was driving to work Friday morning.

"They took advantage of a lull in blustery coastal winds to lift the dome onto the tower just after sunrise," he said.

Now electronic and utility work will need to be done under the dome, where the radar will be housed, before it's activated in September, Buehner said. "This is a big step today. It now looks like Doppler radar."

Buehner said the radar will add integral information to weather forecasting on the coast. The only two places locally that have Doppler are one site on Camano Island and another near Portland.

Because of complex terrain and the Olympic Mountains, those two can't "see" the coastal areas or offshore-weather patterns very well.

"The new coastal radar is a great observational tool," Buehner said. "We'll see storms as they move on shore like we never had before."

He said it will help the National Weather Service fine-tune its forecasts and better predict strong windstorms and heavy rains that could lead to flooding. He said it would have been a good tool for warning residents during the 2007 floods on the Chehalis River.

Cliff Mass, University of Washington meteorologist and weather blogger, said he has been working toward bringing the dome to the coast for 20 years and credits U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., with securing the money.

"This is a huge deal," he said, adding that the existing radar system doesn't allow forecasters to see what's happening offshore. "We didn't have the radar coverage when we needed it in 2007. This will at least give people three to six hours' warning if something happens."

In a statement Friday, Cantwell said, "Today's Doppler radar tower dome installation marks a significant milestone in our effort to bring the best weather coverage to Washington state. No longer is this new radar just a dream or blueprint on paper, but a real structure that will soon help provide Washingtonians with some of the nation's best weather-forecasting technology."

Mass said it also will be a huge safety improvement for fishermen and military operations off the coast.

The new dome will have a coverage area of about 120 nautical miles, Buehner said, and will help forecasters to see the west entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, part of the west coast of Vancouver Island, part of the Oregon coast, and even Southwest Washington and South Puget Sound.

"If you combine Camano Island, Portland and the coastal radar, we'll have good Doppler radar coverage in Western Washington, as well as the coastal waters," Buehner said.

The federal government committed $9 million for the project, and Buehner expects the total costs to come in below that.

He compared Friday's development with finally giving birth to a baby.

"We're smoking the cigars," he said.