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La Plata County signs contract for weather radar installation

After years of anticipation, region will finally have more accurate weather forecasts
The new radar system will fill a previously existing radar void in the system and should vastly improve weather forecasts. The system will have a range of 200 to 250 kilometers, although this image shows a small range just of obstacles encountered at lower elevations. (Courtesy of Baron Weather)

After years of debate and planning, residents of the Four Corners can finally expect to receive vastly more accurate weather forecasts because La Plata County has signed a contract for the purchase and construction of a weather radar system.

The Board of County Commissioners signed a contract with Baron Weather of Huntsville, Alabama, on Dec. 2. County Spokesman Ted Holteen said the county expects contractors to break ground in 2023 as soon as weather allows, although supply chain shortages could delay the project. According to the proposal submitted by Baron in September, the entire installation process should take about nine months, however, the company has until March 15, 2024, to complete the project.

The cost of the turnkey system is not to exceed $2,508,152.62. The county received a $1.7 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and will pay the remaining $800,000 out of the capital improvement fund.

The system will become part of a mosaic of radar technology across the country that the National Weather Service uses to produce forecasts.

The region currently sits in a dark zone for weather forecasters. The closest radar system, located in Grand Junction, cannot see incoming weather in the Four Corners because of the curvature of the earth. Radar shoots in a straight line, meaning that by the time beam hits Durango, it can only see weather at or above about 28,000 feet.

The radar system in Grand Junction misses most storms in the Four Corners because of the earth’s curvature (Durango Herald file illustration)

This has historically caused a problem for weather forecasters. Jeff Colton, an incident meteorologist with the NWS in Grand Junction, said that pretty much every single snowstorm flies below what the radar can see.

“Snow is typically very shallow, the clouds are much thinner or not as deep up into the atmosphere, so it's very hard for us to detect snow in the Four Corners,” Colton said. “This will definitely be helpful in the wintertime. And it’ll also be helpful throughout the year, really, because we’re going to be able to see more the depth of the storms. We can see the tops of a lot of the storms, but this will help fill in that gap and tell us is a storm dry in the lower levels or is it wet? Is it producing the rain or is it just gonna be strong winds and outflow, which could be fire weather concerns, things like that.”

The technology will be contained within a large round equipment shelter seated atop a 70-foot tall tower at Durango-La Plata County Airport. The county selected the site in February after much consideration.

“It’s an area that ultimately emerged and rose to the top because of its access to utilities,” said Tony Vicari, the airport’s director of aviation.

Radar will not pass over or around mountains. Given the terrain surrounding the site, there will be some blockages to the north and south at the lowest elevations, but Colton said this should not be an issue.

Higher elevation scans at 2 degrees and 2.5 degrees will be able to see past the terrain blocks, Colton said. Summer thunderstorms typically move from the southwest to the northeast anyway, and winter snowstorms come from anywhere between the southwest and the southeast.

“This will this will definitely be an improvement to what we have now,” Colton said.

Jon Tarleton, vice president of integrated weather systems at Baron Weather, said the system should have an approximate accurate range of 200 to 250 kilometers. He said the system’s inner electronics will be on par with most other National Weather Service radar stations around the country.

Baron Weather will install a 70-foot tall tower at Durango-La Plata County Airport atop which will sit the new radar system purchased by the county. (Courtesy of Baron Weather)

“I think this is definitely going to be a major, major improvement for the consumer,” Holteen said.

The impact of improved forecasting will extend beyond just the weather app on your phone. Vicari, director of aviation at the airport, expects it will also help with staffing for snow removal operations

“We are basically, to some extent, guessing in terms of when we can expect snow events to end in particular,” he said.

While most aircraft have onboard radar systems that allow them to see weather patterns, this is not always the case. Vicari also said in spite of onboard technology, improved forecasts in the region will have other benefits for airlines.

“It’s going to greatly improve airline dispatch centers’ ability to pre-forecast and view real time convective storms and make better decisions around when to potentially delay aircraft or take alternate routes – things of that nature,” he said.

However, Colton warned that the benefits will not be immediate. Weather forecasts are produced using a complex set of predictive models that rely on myriad data. It will take a year or two before the models adapt to the new data input and are able to produce more accurate forecasts.

“The computers start to see pattern recognition and areas where the storms typically develop and that will help our high resolution computer models that like to develop storms along mountain ranges,” Colton said. “It’s gonna be able to see those storms forming on a regular basis down there now. The software learns, and it gets smarter and smarter with time.”

rschafir@durangoherald.com



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