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New details emerge regarding Doppler blind spots in Brunswick County

No indication that project expedited after deadly February tornado
Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 4:01 PM EDT
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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 they’ve 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 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.

Despite the renewed concerns, there appears to be little to no progress in the plans to permanently fix the problem. Federal officials say buying the land surrounding the radar so they could remove the trees was not feasible, so moving the radar to a new location is the preferred path forward.

However, Maureen O’Leary, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the National Weather Service, said they have yet to begin the process to find a more suitable location for the radar. She released the following statement in response to questions from WECT:

“As you know a forest has grown in the privately-owned land around the National Weather Service Doppler radar in Wilmington, NC. The trees block the lowest level radar scan, particularly to the southwest and south. We are exploring options to address the beam blockage problem, including a long-term solution to relocate the radar, but a location has not been identified.

Typically, the process involves identifying three possible locations and conducting an environmental impact assessment at each location to determine the most suitable site. That work has not started yet. Relocating the radar will take roughly three years and it is costly, estimated at $5.5 million. The timeline to begin the work depends on budget, but could begin about one year after funds become available.

We have implemented changes to improve coverage. On 11/17/20 we lowered the radar beam to 0.3 degrees at the Charleston, SC (KCLX) radar, which provides some additional coverage. We also implemented a new rain rate capability in November 2020, enabling improved precipitation estimates in areas with partial beam blockage.”

A public records request to Brunswick County for any additional information on heightened efforts to move the Doppler indicated the county had requested additional information from federal officials about what kind of site they would be looking for if the radar was moved. Just days after the storm, in an email to Brunswick County Emergency Services Director Ed Conrow and Deputy Director Scott Garner, NOAA Meteorologist Mark Willis wrote, “Any site would need a 1200ft radius with no objects 30m or higher and would need to consider the neighboring topography, partner considerations, and any new gaps that could be introduced.”

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