New radar will provide better look at Routt County precipitation

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— Weather forecasters hope to have a better look at what is falling from the sky after a new radar system is installed next month in Grand Junction.

According to the National Weather Service, 160 Doppler radars are being upgraded across the county with dual-polarization, or two-dimensional radar. It marks the first significant upgrade since Doppler radars were put in use in the early 1990s.

Grand Junction meteorologist Ellen Heffernan said the biggest improvement is that it will allow forecasters to see whether rain, hail or snow is falling.

“Right now, when the radar sees precipitation in the sky, it can’t really see if it’s hail or not,” Heffernan said. “You see a strong reflectivity from hail, which then overestimates the precipitation amount.”

In areas that see tornadoes, she said the new radar will allow forecasters to see debris that is spread in the air. That means it can help forecasters confirm that a tornado has touched down, which could be especially beneficial at night.

Even with the new radar, Heffernan said there still will be limitations that make it difficult for forecasters to see precipitation in Steamboat, especially during the winter.

“That’s especially a problem in the winter because a lot of the time, the precipitation we see is low level,” Heffernan said.

She said the current radar location is being upgraded. It is located near the western edge of Grand Mesa at an elevation of 10,000 feet and has a maximum range of 286 miles. The radar beam shoots slightly upward, and by the time it reaches the Steamboat area, the center of the beam is at about 23,000 feet. Ice crystals and the small snowflakes that make up Steamboat’s light snow are not very reflective, Heffernan said, so it still will be challenging for meteorologists to see whether Steamboat is enjoying a powder day and whether hazardous travel conditions exist.

Heffernan said that is why it is important that meteorologists get help from people on the ground, such as law enforcement, storm spotters and residents who can report their observations.

“Sometimes, we have a hard time knowing whether it’s snowing or not,” Heffernan said.

Work on installing the new radar is expected to start Sept. 17 and is scheduled to take two weeks. During that time, the radar will be unavailable, so forecasters will be somewhat blind. Heffernan said during that time, forecasters will be relying on satellite imagery and ground observations, such as reports from weather observers and measuring stations on the ground.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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