BRUNSWICK COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It’s been nearly six years since the federal government confirmed there were serious issues with their KLTX Doppler radar in Shallotte. The beams the radar uses to read the weather there are partially blocked by pine trees on surrounding properties. The trees were not an issue in 1994 when the radar was installed, but have grown so tall since then that they are now causing significant interference.
Specifically, the tree line has created a blind spot for the radar to the south and southwest, making it considerably harder for meteorologists to accurately forecast severe weather in time to warn residents in Ocean Isle Beach, Sunset Beach, and the Grand Strand. Many storms that impact our area approach from that direction.
Meteorologists have been complaining about the issue for years, but the problem came to the forefront again after a deadly tornado hit Brunswick County in February, killing three people. There was no Tornado Watch issued in advance of the storm, and the Tornado Warning was issued as the storm was touching down, leaving those in the early path of the storm with essentially no warning to take cover. The fast-moving storm came directly up the path where the radar is partially blocked.
“It cannot be said with certainty from my standpoint the partial radar blockage had anything to do with that particular warning process, but for me, to have the storm of issue come right up through that wedge — you know you get a 360 degree pie, the small piece of the pie that has at least a partial radar blockage, was the critical part for the trajectory of that storm,” WECT Chief Meteorologist Gannon Medwick explained.
Ideally, the National Weather Service likes to issue a Tornado Watch several hours before a tornado hits, and they do the vast majority of the time. But on Feb. 15, the only heads up the public had was a slight risk of severe weather issued by the National Weather Service earlier in the day, and a Severe Thunder Storm Warning issued six minutes before the tornado touched down.
The KLTX Doppler’s shortcomings are a problem for meteorologists during all sorts of weather events, but it’s particularly important when a tornado is touching down to see weather patterns closer to the ground.
Medwick captured KLTX radar images from a recent widespread rain event to illustrate the blind spot. The radar captures weather information at various heights, and despite heavy rain, no precipitation is Doppler indicated when looking at the lower level readings. It isn’t until you look at the scans from much higher altitudes that any precipitation registers.
“It’s a frustrating problem in so much as it’s known. It’s known locally to our partners at the National Weather Service, it’s known here in the First Alert Forecast Center, and the pace at which it’s not being addressed is frustrating,” Medwick said.
There are essentially two options available to improve the situation: cut down the trees on surrounding properties, or disassemble the radar and move it to a location with less interference. Weather experts say raising the radar at it’s existing location is not an option because it loses functionality if it is too high above the ground. Both remaining options are extremely costly, but federal weather officials say the cost of cutting down the trees was so expensive it was cost-prohibitive.
WECT reviewed GIS maps provided by Brunswick County, and saw that there are over a dozen land owners on the properties surrounding the Doppler radar in Shallotte. Trees on just a few of those properties, to the south and southwest, seem to be creating the biggest problems.
Some of the plots are family owned, but several of the larger and more densely wooded lots are owned by Brunswick Timber LLC, a corporation based in Mobile, AL according to county records. The trees are presumably being commercially grown to sell for profit, which may be why buying the land or paying the owners to cut down the trees through eminent domain is too expensive. WECT reached out to Brunswick Timber LLC’s parent company to inquire about the value of the land, but has not yet received a response.
The estimated cost to relocate the radar is $5.5 million. But since the National Weather Service determined that was the best path forward in 2016, there has been no progress that we are aware of determining where it would be moved, or when that might happen. NWS officials say they use other weather prediction tools to help make up for the blind spot at the KTLX radar, but that’s not an ideal solution. One of the alternate tools is using data from the next closest Doppler radar to the south, but that’s down near Beaufort, SC.
“The trees have grown further. They’re not shrinking, they’re continuing to grow. And so any chance we get to highlight the problem and bring it to awareness, and hopefully put pressure to find a solution, is better,” Medwick said.
The central office National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service, did not respond to WECT’s request for comment on the issue. But Sen. Thom Tillis, who represents North Carolina in Congress, assured us he is taking this seriously.
“This is extremely concerning and unnecessarily putting North Carolina families in danger,” Tillis said. “I am always working to ensure the health and safety of North Carolinians, which is why I recently requested additional resources for weather radar coverage in our state, specifically to increase funding to expand radar capabilities. My office is also meeting with government officials in towns across the state regarding our emergency management system, and we hope to find solutions that put the safety of every North Carolinian first during extreme weather events.”
The press officer for Congressman David Rouzer said he is aware of the issue as well. We did not get a response from Sen. Richard Burr’s office to our request for comment.