The WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network: How we decided where to put the radars

Extensive research by WAAY 31 meteorologists went into the placement of each radar site in the region.

Posted: Aug 6, 2020 12:53 AM
Updated: May 4, 2021 11:03 AM

It's a project more than two years in the making: The WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network.

Three Doppler radars across North Alabama comprise what is now the largest private radar network in the country.

These radars are networked together to provide a complete picture and fill in the gaps between other radar sites.

WAAY 31 worked closely with EEC, an Enterprise, Ala., company that makes Doppler radars. They are one of the world’s largest manufacturers, with radar installations in more than 900 countries worldwide.

Extensive research by both WAAY 31 meteorologists and EEC went into the placement of each radar site in the region.

Here are some of the factors taken into consideration:

First and foremost, we needed to ensure complete radar coverage across all of North Alabama. This is the exact reason WAAY 31 pursued a radar network in the first place.

One centrally located radar is not quite powerful enough to provide quality data on its outer fringes, but three radars with overlapping scans do exactly that: Provide high resolution data across every community.

In order to do this, our radars would need to cover every inch of North Alabama's 150 mile by nearly 90-mile area.

Secondly, it was determined a centrally located radar, in addition to a radar to the west and to the east, would be necessary.

The radars on the fringe of the viewing area would provide data for storms coming into North Alabama. This would produce information beneficial in advanced warning and lead time in our communities that aren't centrally located.

For those cities that are in the heart of the area, the centrally located radar would be equally important in monitoring and tracking both developing and ongoing storms.

The third aspect of consideration may seem like the most obvious, but it certainly played a role in site selection.

Ensuring even spatial distribution was critical in covering North Alabama equally. That is to say, one portion of the area isn't covered by two high-quality radar scans and another area is barely on the outer fringes.

We needed overlapping scans to eliminate safety gaps, but not overlapping to the extent that one area received lower quality data as a result.

A "safety gap" is just a way to describe the location at which the radar beam is a bit too high above the ground to provide clear, accurate radar data.

It's on the outer fringe of the radar's range, leading to a degradation in radar quality as well.

In addition, the radar sites needed to be placed near adequately populated areas, due to the fact that a higher concentration of people typically means a higher concentration of infrastructure and technological resources.

The radars require a high speed, reliable internet connection to receive and transmit information. Of equal importance was access to a reliable, high quality power source.

So, after careful selection, the final three sites for the WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network are Muscle Shoals, Decatur and Guntersville.

In Muscle Shoals, the Doppler radar was hoisted to the top of a water tower on the northwest side of town, just off Cox Boulevard.

In Decatur, the radar sits on top of the People's Bank of Alabama downtown across from the Cook Museum of Natural Science.

In Guntersville, like Muscle Shoals, the radar was lifted to the top of a water tower across the street from the Lake Guntersville State Park Lodge.

Finally, after all three sites had been narrowed down to a general area, an exact location had to be determined.

One of the more important factors in honing in on a spot was the radar's "view" from the location.

"Beam blockage" occurs when the radar beam being sent out is obstructed by terrain (like a hillside or mountain) or an object (like a building). One of the strengths of the WAAY 31 StormTracker Early Warning Radar Network is that it uses fairly compact Doppler radars, so they can be ideally be placed anywhere.

This means they can be low to the ground, helping to identify and track low-level circulations like developing tornadoes, in addition to microbursts and straight line winds.

However, a radar that's too low to the ground means the beam can easily be blocked.

Numerous surveys by EEC and WAAY 31 finally determined ideal locations that would greatly reduce radar beam blockage to provide a clear, complete picture from each site.

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