Meteorologists agree that a gap in National Weather Service radar capabilities exists in northwest Alabama and south central Tennessee, but one meteorologist explains radar is just one tool used to make storm predictions.

WHNT Meteorologist Jason Simpson said northwest Alabama would benefit from another radar unit somewhere between Huntsville, Columbus, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee.

The Shoals area and south central Tennessee are on the far reaches of the Huntsville and Columbus NEXRAD radar stations, which makes it difficult to detect tornadoes that are forming close to the ground, below where the radar is scanning. 

Simpson said while the Columbus radar may be scanning around 6,000 feet over downtown Florence, a tornado could be forming at 1,000 to 2,000 feet, especially a "Quasi-Linear Convective System or QLCS" tornado, which is more difficult to detect than a super cell tornado.

One of the problems involves something humans cannot correct, which is the curvature of the earth and the limitations of radar to cover everyone in north Alabama equally, he said.

The terrain in Colbert and Lauderdale counties can also impact a radar's ability to see the lowest part of the storm, or what's occurring in the lower atmosphere.

Loretto, Tennessee, Mayor Jesse Turner is working with U.S. Rep. Mark Green, who represents the 7th District of Tennessee, to find a solution to the problem.

"We've had two EF-1 tornadoes in the past 15 months, basically on the same path," Turner said.

Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, was also hit by a tornado in the past two weeks, and in both cases there were no warnings.

Turner said he hopes to get representatives from Tennessee and Alabama together to lobby for additional radar coverage. 

Carson Clark, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, of Alabama's 4th Congressional District, said the congressman is aware of the issue.

"We are definitely looking into this and seeking more information from NOAA," Clark said.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, of Alabama, is also aware of the gap.

According to the senator's website, Jones recently wrote to Neil Jacobs, who has been nominated to serve as administrator for NOAA, to call attention to the gaps in weather radar capabilities in Alabama, and to request a meeting on the issue before the Senate votes to confirm Jacobs.

Jacobs currently serves as the acting NOAA administrator.

NEXRAD systems are no longer being built, and new systems will not be ready for another 10 to 20 years, leaving many communities without the ability to adequately forecast and track storm systems, Jones said.

Brian Carcioni, a meteorologist with the National Weather service in Huntsville, acknowledged gaps exist in the Shoals, in south central Tennessee and elsewhere in the U.S., but said radar is one of many tools used to forecast severe weather.

"Every meteorologist has their own opinion about what adequate radar coverage is," he said. "Forecasters at the National Weather Service use not just radar, but satellite and model data, and observational data like we have at the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport to help make their warning decisions.

"Radar is certainly the most visible piece of the puzzle we use, but it's just one component of a much larger piece," he said.

Forecasters use all these different tools to make decisions on warnings, Carcioni said.

He said there are always discussions about more effective ways to stretch the National Weather Services's coverage a little more, or ways to leverage new technologies to improve coverage.

Another issue is that the nation's weather Dopler radar system is getting older and is in need of maintenance, which is extremely expensive.

"Keeping the existing radar going is obviously a huge challenge," Carcioni said.

Ben Luna, a meteorologist and general manager of WLX radio in Lawrenceburg, said his radio station is considering purchasing a weather radar system to replace the "antique" system purchased in the 1980s.

"This is not a new problem," Luna said. "It's a problem that's been existing for many years."

Luna said the Hytop NEXRAD radar station in Jackson County cannot see anything under 7,600 feet in the Shoals. Columbus NEXRAD, the closest to the Shoals, cannot see below 6,000 feet. The Birmingham NEXRAD radar cannot see below 13,000 feet, and Memphis, Tennessee's radar can't see below 14,000 feet.

He said the last three tornadoes that touched down in Lawrence County formed at about 5,500 feet.

Luna and Simpson said it's more difficult to spot smaller EF-1 and EF-2 tornadoes at the edge of the radar systems. 

Another solution that's been considered is a radar system that costs $750,000 to $900,000. It could be placed somewhere between Lawrenceburg and Florence.

"It's not feasible for the federal government to put in another NEXRAD radar in here," he said. "That's not what we're looking for."

The system being considered would be funded by state and local governments, private interests and the community 

"We're not looking at something to break the piggy banks of county governments," he said.

Luna said the system would be sufficient to detect smaller tornadoes forming at lower levels. The system would share data with the National Weather Service and provide the necessary coverage to increase warning times.

The only drawback is it would take several years to get the system in place, if the funding could be secured. This is why WLX is looking at its own system.

Tuscumbia Mayor Kerry Underwood said the coalition of Shoals government and Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments officials who travel to Washington, D.C., each year to meet with the local delegation will continue to keep the issue in the forefront.

"We've talked at the federal level and we have a little bit of traction," Underwood said. "It's an expensive endeavor to build a new station, but we feel it's a narrative we need to tell."

He referenced a tornado that struck downtown Tuscumbia in 2015 that damaged several homes. The tornado also caused widespread damage in Sheffield.

"Jesse is in the same situation and if we can team up to have a bigger voice, I'm happy to do that," Underwood said.

russ.corey@timesdaily.com

or 256-740-5738. Twitter

@TD_.RussCorey

(1) comment

David Rau

There is not much of a chance of getting a radar for the Lawrence County Tennessee area from the federal government because of the Trump tax cuts for the rich. The federal debt is soaring and NOAA has no money for new radars. And as far as the Lawrence County government being able to pay for its that's not likely since we don't even have enough money to adaquately support our schools. David Rau, Lawrenceburg

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