Oregon radar system gaps contributed to snowstorm forecast problems

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Last month’s record-breaking snowstorm left Portland reeling for days, but part of why the storm hit so hard was that it took the city by surprise — and a gap in Oregon’s weather radar coverage has something to do with it.

Commuters headed to work on Feb. 22 were still expecting not much more than a light dusting, but the storm ended up dumping nearly 11 inches of snow, turning metro area roads into a catastrophic mess by the early evening.

Poor radar coverage means weather systems are tougher to track in Oregon, making it really difficult to pinpoint who will see snowflakes and who won’t. The Feb. 22 storm is a good example because it involved a band of moisture moving in over Oregon’s central coast — right where a radar gap stretches for nearly 200 miles to the south of Lincoln City.

KGW spoke with atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass with the University of Washington to see if last month’s snowstorm would have been easier to predict with better radar coverage.

“It certainly would have helped short-range,” he said. “I’m not saying it would have helped 48 hours out, but for forecasting the six-to-twelve-hour forecast, having a coastal radar could have been useful.”

Mass said that the coastal radar system in Oregon is practically nonexistent. In fact, Oregon is notorious for having the worst radar coverage of the lower 48 states. And it’s not just a question of missing radar stations — existing stations, like the one in Portland, can also run into terrain challenges.

“It’s so bad because the radars aren’t there that need to cover that (coast) region, and the fact that we have terrain that blocks the radar,” Mass said. “We have the Cascades that are good at blocking radar, and the coastal range.”

Snowstorms aren’t the only dangerous weather patterns that can slip through radar gaps. When a tornado hit the coast town of Manzanita in October 2016, the only warning residents got was an alert sent to their phones.

Closing the gap isn’t an easy task, because new radar installations on the coast would cost millions of dollars. Mass said his approach would be to move an existing radar installation from Medford out to the coast, and replace it in Medford with less expensive hardware.

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