Driving north on Marathon Road past the Kenai Municipal Airport, you might notice what looks like a giant teed-up golf ball way out to the west. That’s actually a weather station. Right now, it’s down for two weeks as it undergoes routine repairs.
The radar, a WSR-88D, is owned and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which uses it for air traffic control. David Kochevar, of the National Weather Service in Anchorage, said the radar is also used for forecasting.
“What it does is it sends out a beam that reflects back the radar that gives us an idea of where the precipitation is, its intensity," he said. "It can give us some information as far as what type of precipitation is falling, whether it’s rain or snow or anything like that. So it’s a really critical piece of information for our forecast operations.”
If you go to radar.weather.gov you’ll see the radar is currently offline. NWS is in the process of updating it and 158 like it nationwide to increase their longevity. In Alaska, similar radars are based in Bethel, King Salmon, Nome, Middleton Island, Pedro Dome and Biorka Island.
Repairs are expected to last until about Nov. 7.
“To kind of put it in simpler terms, there’s a dish inside of the golf ball that you mentioned, which is essentially a big dome that protects this dish from the elements of the weather," Kochevar said. "So what causes that dish to move up and down and to rotate around so we can get a 360 view, and like a three-dimensional view of the atmosphere, is a pedestal that allows it to do that. And that pedestal is beyond its extended lifetime. So in order to prevent any kind of unexpected failure down the road, we’re doing a full replacement of that pedestal.”
Usually, this radar can read all the way to the Talkeetna area.
“One of the unique things up here in Alaska is that we really don’t have too many weather radars to work with," Kochevar said. "And why that’s important when a radar like Kenai goes down is we don’t have maybe a nearby radar that has overlapping coverage that we could usually utilize.”
In the interim, NWS will use satellites and webcams to fill the void.
The radar is based in Kenai, Kochevar said, because it can also track volcanic ash. Which makes Cook Inlet a good home.
“So that’s actually one of the primary reasons that that radar is down there in Kenai, is to help track where that ash is going when you do have those eruptions," he said. "So it very much has a dual purpose.”
But have no fear — if there is an eruption in the next few days, while the radar is down, NWS can lean on its team at the Anchorage Volcanic Ash Advisory Center to monitor the situation.