Our View: Time to fill gaps in weather radar

Weather forecasters in this state are guessing about the severity of upcoming storms because they have inadequate information - primarily weather readings for what's happening on the Olympic Peninsula and in the Pacific Ocean.

The biggest gap in coastal weather radar coverage anywhere in the United States is on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

It's time for the federal government to invest the money to install the necessary equipment which, in turn, will better protect Washington residents.

In the early 1990s, the National Weather Service installed powerful Doppler weather radar across the country. Those Doppler readers record precipitation and winds and have revolutionized forecasting, according to Cliff Mass, an atmospheric-sciences professor at the University of Washington who is leading the charge for additional coastal systems.

But there are significant coverage gaps along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. All it would take to get a complete picture of incoming weather would be new Doppler stations at - say - Westport along the Washington coast and Newport in Oregon. Each station would be able to record conditions up to 138 miles away.

According to Mass, new stations in those locations would:

* Give meteorologists the wind and precipitation readings they need to provide more complete weather notifications for the entire Northwest - six to 18 hours - in advance.

* Give coastal search-and-rescue personnel - and military operation officials - critical information on wind and precipitation levels.

* Provide coastal communities - for the first time - with reliable information on stream flows and flood forecasting.

* Give researchers and weather watchers a complete picture of incoming storms vs. today's incomplete pictures with gaps in coverage.

* Assist Homeland Security officials with crucial data that could be used, for example, to forecast toxic plume dispersion.

We in Western Washington have come to accept the fact that there's a blind spot in weather data. But that doesn't mean we have to continue to accept this inadequate information.

Inside the storm

The lack of coastal radar coverage makes it hard for weather forecasters to see inside a storm heading inland off the Washington coast. That puts each of us at risk.

Remember the Dec. 14, 2006, windstorm that battered the Puget Sound basin, leaving about 1 million of us in the dark? The National Weather Service satellite imagery and computer models helped forecasters predict that heavy winds were on their way and did a good job of nailing down their approximate arrival time and duration. But we were not prepared for the amount of precipitation - and subsequent flooding - that resulted in disaster declarations throughout the region.

Federal, state and local government officials are always hammering on us about the importance of being well prepared for emergency situations - especially natural disasters. So why isn't the federal government doing all it can to better protect us by giving us complete weather information? The investment of a few million dollars in Wesport and Newport would help each of us brace for the storms that roll in off the Pacific Ocean.

Whom to contact

U.S. senators: Sen. Patty Murray , 173 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510. Call 202-224-2621. E-mail through the senator's Web site: www.murray.senate.gov/email. Sen. Maria Cantwell, 511 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510. Call 202-224-3441. E-mail through the senator's Web site: cantwell.senate.gov.

U.S. representatives: Rep. Brian Baird, 2443 Rayburn Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. Call 202-225-3536. E-mail through the congressman's Web site: www.house.gov/baird. Rep. Adam Smith, 2402 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. Call 202-225-8901.

E-mail: Adam.smith@mail.house.gov.