The Oregon Coast is a national treasure providing 363 miles of access to the Pacific Ocean and yet it is grossly unprotected in one important way. Most of it isn’t covered by Doppler radar.
This deficiency was brought home again on Jan. 21 when a confirmed tornado caused minor damage to two properties along the Kahnie Trail Loop near Manzanita. There were no injuries, but it was a strong reminder of the fact that there is a glaring gap in weather monitoring along most of our spectacular seashore.
It has been about a decade since a Doppler station was installed on Langley Hill overlooking the ocean in Grays Harbor County, Washington. Sweeping Washington’s outer coast and extending southward to take in the mouth of the Columbia River, Langley radar has been transformative in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it provides hours of warning about approaching weather for coastal fishing boats, passenger ships and cargo vessels. The radar spots and allows nearly instantaneous warnings when powerful storm cells appears likely to generate tornadoes, waterspouts and lightning.
On a prosaic but nevertheless useful level, coastal residents can immediately learn what weather is approaching their neighborhoods — information that facilitates everything from walking the dog to deciding when to do outdoor chores. Oystermen heading out into Willapa Bay can know just how hard their workdays and nights are likely to be.
Langley’s coverage effectively ends somewhere in the vicinity of Tillamook Head. This means that coastal communities and fishing boats from Manzanita to about the Oregon-California state line are in a blind spot when it comes to the high-resolution information that Doppler provides. These roughly 300 miles of coastline are the last in the continental U.S. to lack coverage.
This meant that no warning was given before the Jan. 21 tornado. In 2016, when a more serious tornado did significant damage in Manzanita, there was a warning — but only thanks to the Langley Hill radar spotting the fast-developing storm cell.
“It is outrageous that the Oregon Coast has virtually no radar coverage,” University of Washington meteorology professor Cliff Mass said last month. “Such coverage would not only help protect coastal residents, but would give a heads up for approaching storms for the densely populated Willamette Valley and Puget Sound regions.”
This is not the first time we have advocated on behalf of improvements in Oregon Coast storm detection. We’ve noted that since many of our worst storms come out of the southwest, Doppler radar would benefit people far inland from the coast when destructive winds and rain come stabbing in from the Pacific.
“Here at the coast where the weather is probably the most volatile … to not have (radar) is a little concerning,” a Manzanita resident said after the 2016 tornado. “We got lucky this time around.”
The Northwest coast’s weather is likely to become more erratic, not less so, as climate change throws unpredictable wild cards into the serious game of forecasting severe winds and flood-producing rains.
Although the nation obviously has a great many expensive needs, plugging this dangerous hole in weather knowledge would certainly save lives. Like New Orleans’ inadequate dikes, this is a risk we know all about and are foolhardy not to address.