Post-tropical storm Fiona shows vulnerabilities in Canada’s weather radar network, expert says

The old weather radar at Marble Mountain in western Newfoundland, seen here in 2016, was replaced in 2022 as part of the Canadian Weather Radar Replacement Program.Scott Grant/The Globe and Mail

As post-tropical storm Fiona devastated much of Atlantic Canada last month, Robert Way watched in horror as hurricane-force winds and heavy rain wreak havoc across much of the region.

A geography professor at Queen’s University and a climate change researcher, he was out of danger in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, central Labrador. But Prof Way was worried about what might happen if the storm had moved further north, beyond the range of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s weather radar.

“As the storm moves north, we are losing critical radar coverage of areas likely to be affected. Canada has not properly invested in radar infrastructure in most of Canada,” said Prof. Way. tweeted September 24.

Weather radars are a key component in predicting short-term severe weather events such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, extreme rains and ice storms. But Environment Canada does not operate any weather radar in Labrador, the Territories or northern British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

‘There is no radar coverage over large swaths of land,’ Prof Way said.

The majority of Canadians are covered because they live in the south. But the areas that don’t have radar are those that are expected to suffer the greatest impact from climate change. “They depend a lot on the weather. They also have the least infrastructure to deal with climate change and many are air-only communities,” Prof Way said.

Canada’s weather radar network is undergoing a modernization project that began in 2017.

“Weather radars are the main tool used by our meteorologists to issue more accurate and timely severe weather warnings in Canada,” said Samantha Bayard, spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada, in an email to The Globe and Mail. .

“Replacing the aging network with new, modern weather radars will ensure that Canadians are better informed of weather changes,” she said.

But even after the updates are complete next year, more than 460,000 Canadians and just under two-thirds of the country’s landmass will remain without weather radar coverage. Most of those excluded from coverage live in the North, in remote communities and are Indigenous. For example, coverage excludes all of Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of the Inuit.

While most northern communities have local weather stations on the ground, which offer basic weather information such as air temperature, rainfall and wind speed, Prof Way said the lack of coverage radar impedes travel, especially for communities accessible by air.

“If you don’t know or don’t have a good idea of ​​what’s going on in the sky between two points, it increases the likelihood of delayed or canceled flights,” he said.

As weather patterns continue to change, often in unpredictable ways, it’s best people have more tools at their disposal, said Joel Finnis, a climatologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s.

“Climate change means that the weather you are used to is not necessarily the weather you will have. When unexpected or unusual weather conditions arrive, the more information you get, the better. Radar provides critical real-time weather information and therefore can be extremely useful in these situations,” Prof Finnis said.

Modernizing Canada’s weather radar network will help meteorologists adjust forecasts more quickly because they provide more information, more often.

With updates to conventional radar, forecasters will be better able to distinguish between types of precipitation, such as rain, snow, hail and freezing rain. The new radars will also have an extended detection range – called the Doppler range – which will give people more time to take appropriate action to protect themselves and their property from the effects of the weather.

Doppler radar is particularly important for detecting rotational patterns in wind speeds, providing early warning for tornadoes. Updated radars can also go further in dense storms and require less maintenance than older models.

In addition to relying on local weather stations, Environment Canada meteorologists support weather forecasts through sources such as satellite imagery, lightning detection equipment, weather buoys and ship reports. . They also rely on computer modeling to predict developing weather events.

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