A new dimension in weather: the Canadian Weather Radar Replacement Program

In Canada, the weather isn’t just a topic for casual conversation. It can be life-or-death if you are a passenger on an airplane, a fisher on the ocean, a hunter out on the trapline, or even a driver on one of Canada’s major highways. In addition, high-quality weather data is an important part of strategic planning for our weather-dependent economy, especially in such sectors as agriculture, natural resources, fisheries, construction, aviation, tourism, transportation, retail and recreation.

High-quality weather data relies, in turn, on sophisticated technology and highly trained meteorologists. As technology evolves, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) evolves with it. A new cluster of computers is providing enhanced computing capacity to process the raw data from Canada’s weather stations, and over the next seven years, ECCC will replace 20 of its 31 weather-radar installations across the country. The contract also contains options to replace the remaining 11 weather radars within the same timeframe. Moreover, an additional new radar will be installed in the Lower Athabasca (Fort McMurray) region in Alberta.

The new radars use state-of-the-art technology that provides more data over a wider range, allowing ECCC to anticipate severe weather sooner and provide greater lead-time for Canadians to take action before events like tornadoes and floods strike.

State-of-the-art technology: how it works

The new radars, with their dual-polarization technology, will enable forecasters to better distinguish between rain, snow, hail and freezing rain as well as better discern the size, shape and variety of precipitation particles. They will also improve the identification and removal of non-meteorological targets from the data, such as birds, bugs and debris.

The new radars will have an extended severe-weather detection range to cover more of Canada. This increases lead time and allows for better overlap of neighbouring radars in case of an outage. They operate on different wavelengths, which gives them better storm penetration, allowing for radar returns from deep into dense weather systems and even beyond them to the next weather cell.

Finally, the new radars will provide new data every 6 minutes, rather than every 10 minutes, which is especially important in rapidly changing weather situations, such as thunderstorms and tornadoes.

The bottom line is that the new technology provides more information to:

  • pre-position snow plows and emergency crews
  • guide more precisely marine search and rescue missions
  • better route planes around severe weather
  • improve stream flow forecasts and flood predictions
  • postpone or cancel outdoor events
  • protect property, such as cars, when damaging hail is on the way

Radisson, Saskatchewan: the first to modernize

The first new radar was installed in Radisson, located in central Saskatchewan just northwest of Saskatoon. The process, which takes between two and three months depending on conditions, was successfully completed in mid-November 2017, and testing followed throughout December. By mid-January 2018, data was being made available to forecasters. Coming on stream early in the radar replacement program Radisson is now ready for the summer season, in particular for tracking tornadoes, hail storms and other extreme weather events.

Radisson has already benefited from the new dual-polarization technology. Shown below are very early images of precipitation captured on the morning of December 15, 2017.

November 11, 2017: Tower construction wraps up in Radisson, Saskatchewan

Old technology

New technology

“The image on the left shows some areas of heavier precipitation, but it is impossible to tell what the heavier precipitation is,” explains Pat Wong from ECCC.

“The image on the right is an example of the dual-polarization technology of the new radar. The red and purple areas imply possible moderate rain or wet/melting snow. Snow tends to show blues to light greens when it is dry and aggregated.

“This new kind of data, available with the new radar, allowed forecasters to update the forecast for the area to include not only snow but also rain or mixed rain/snow,” she continues.

Replacing Canada’s weather-radar network is the fruit of collaboration between ECCC, which is responsible for the installation of the radars, and Shared Services Canada, which provided newly upgraded data services.

“This is a complex and wide-ranging project,” concludes Pat Wong. “It requires highly sophisticated technology and many teams of players to ensure it is installed, tested and operating 24/7. At the same time, I can’t overstress the importance of that last mile—getting the results out to the public. Our partnership with Shared Services Canada is critical to ensuring the safety and security of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”

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