Tracking the next weather-maker: Go inside Boise's Doppler radar

Boise's Doppler radar is located four miles south of the airport

When it comes to identifying and tracking severe storms and winter weather, one of the most important tools meteorologists have at their fingertips is the Doppler radar.

What does a Doppler radar do?

Doppler radars send electromagnetic signals out into the atmosphere in search of different types of weather. When that energy 'hits' something (whether it be a raindrop, snowflake, or even a bird) it then bounces off of that particle, sending a signal back to the Doppler radar. Meteorologists then use computers to analyze that data to determine what type of element that energy bounced off from.

"The Doppler radar fires out a signal and shoots it up to about 250 miles away," said National Weather Service electronic systems analyst Travis Mayer.

So whether it's a quiet morning, or an active evening, the radar is working non-stop, ready to help meteorologists track the next big weather-maker. Another way to look at it: think of it as a forecaster's eye in the sky, as it helps us them a lot of what they can't actually see with their own eyes.

"It gives us a 3-D picture of the atmosphere in southwestern Idaho," National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Jay Breidenbach said.

When data comes back from the Doppler radar disk, the analysis helps pinpoint the location and velocity of incoming storms, and can also show the difference between types of precipitation, a distinction that is especially important to make in instances of severe weather or winter storms.

"Snow looks different on radar, as does rainfall, or hail," Breidenbach said. "It's a pretty important tool in determining the type of precipitation, and at which elevation the snow melts and changes to rain."

What does it look like?

There are only 159 Doppler radars in the country, one of which is in Boise. The only other in the state is located in Pocatello.

On your TV screen, it looks like this:

But in reality, the Doppler radar is actually a large fiberglass ball that sits several stories high in the sky:

Boise's Doppler radar is located about four miles south of the Boise Airport, in the desert off of Pleasant Valley Road.

"It's that big brown ball you see when you're driving out here," Mayer said.

From the outside, it doesn't look like much, but this fiberglass ball holds the key to the castle. The key, of course, being the Doppler radar disk itself.

"It's a pretty exciting scientific system," said Mayer, who maintains the radar disk and everything else that keeps it up and spinning. "But, it's still moving gears and parts and oil and grease."

This system gives an updated 3-D picture of the atmosphere (at different heights) every 10 minutes. It was first installed back in 1994, meaning this technology has been around in Boise for less than 25 years. There have been dozens of upgrades made since it was first introduced into the valley, some of which have come in just the last couple of years. However, before that, meteorologists and forecasters relied purely on satellites and observation data.

"I can't even begin to guess what we did before," Mayer said.

Not a perfect science

Despite dozens of upgrades and advancements being made in radar technology, weather (and tracking it) will never be a perfect science.

Especially out west, radar coverage is far from complete. There are large areas where gaps exist in the radar network, leaving many areas 'in the dark.' In Idaho, mountain ranges pose a tall challenge for our Doppler radars.

"We can't see what's going on as it heads up through McCall," Mayers aid. "We don't have a good radar picture. In those situations we have to rely on our observing network."

But when it comes to shortfalls, whether on the part of technology or the meteorologist, don't shoot the messenger. Apparently, some people have tried to.

"We've had some vandalism and bullet holes that piece the dome," Mayer said. "We did get one shot that hit the dish pretty good, so that's pretty severe."

Thankfully, the Doppler radar disk is a sturdy piece of equipment, meaning no bullet hole will stop this technology from helping forecasters track the next storm...or us from using the Doppler radar to tell you about our next weather-maker on TV.

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