Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A broken radar is leaving a gap in the weather forecast — and the shutdown has slowed repairs

On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken. (WYDaily/Courtesy Google Maps)
On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken. (WYDaily/Courtesy Google Maps)

As the federal government shutdown trudges on, federal workers are still either working without pay or furloughed.

Those affected include Coast Guard members, Transportation Security Administration workers and Department of Justice employees.

But there’s been another casualty from the shutdown: the National Weather Service in Wakefield’s radar equipment.

On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken, said Meteorologist-in-charge Jeff Orrock. The Wakefield radar gathers data for northeast North Carolina, Hampton Roads, central Virginia and parts of the Eastern Shore.

The radar pedestal’s slipring package was causing the equipment to short-circuit, shutting down the radar, throwing circuit breakers and frying other components.

“It’s a critical component,” Orrock said.

Sliprings are large metal discs under the radar that rotate and allow current to pass from one part to the other. The slipring package is maintained often, but equipment that runs 24/7 is still subject to breakage.

Orrock said the federal shutdown delayed the approval process for ordering new parts and getting the equipment fixed, although by Wednesday morning the repairs had been approved. The National Weather Service is housed under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Orrock said the parts for the radar had been ordered and the radar could be fixed and back online as early as late Thursday or early Friday.

The radar may be getting repaired soon, but in the interim, meteorologists must work around a dead zone in their weather data.

Weather radars near Blacksburg and Northern Virginia, as well as Raleigh and Morehead City, North Carolina, help cover the area skies affected by the broken radar.

The curve of the Earth means radars in the distance can reach mid-levels of storms near Wakefield, but nothing on low or ground level, Orrock said.

For ground-level weather, meteorologists are relying on wind sensors on rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and land sensors. That means meteorologist may not be able to make a forecast as far in advance as they usually do when the full radar is operational. The sensors are used to observe weather as it happens.

So, for Thursday, meteorologists know to expect some rain and gusty winds, but will be on the lookout for any weather events that require special warnings.

“We’ll have to be a little bit more careful,” Orrock said. “If we have to issue warnings, we’ll need to give them more lead time.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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