“It’s like switching from black and white television to color,” says the meteorologist.
As our climate continues to change, accurate tracking of severe weather is critical.
That is why Environment and Climate Canada’s newest radar facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta, which officially became operational in late September, is seen as an important piece in the weather and climate puzzle.
“There was not a single existing radar here,” says Sarah Hoffman, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“So we’re fully expanding the radar coverage over northeast Alberta and northwest Saskatchewan.”
The installation is part of a $140 million nationwide project to upgrade and replace the outdated network with dual-polarization radars — often referred to as “dual-pol” — according to Hoffman. This will effectively double the detection range in severe weather.
The project began in 2017 with site upgrades at Radisson, 65 kilometers northwest of Saskatoon.
Doppler vs Bipolar Radar: What’s the Difference?
The weather radar shows real-time precipitation, allowing meteorologists to better warn of floods, hail and other severe events. It works by sending electromagnetic pulses that hit and bounce off precipitation, indicating where it is currently raining or snowing.
The Canadian weather radar network last underwent a major upgrade in the late 1990s when the system was upgraded with Doppler radar. Doppler radar measures movement within storms to help see rotations that can indicate severe weather such as tornadoes.
The latest round of improvements will effectively double the Doppler range.
Bipolar radar goes further, measuring storms more accurately and more frequently, scanning every six minutes instead of ten.
The bipolar radar provides more information about the size, shape and distribution of storms, Hoffman said. This gives forecasters the ability to determine if the precipitation is snow or rain and if there is hail. This allows better prediction of rainfall.
And when large storms pass directly overhead, the double pole is less likely to be drowned out by heavy precipitation than Doppler. This means meteorologists can see more clearly in and around these storms.
“It’s like going from black and white TV to color,” says Hoffman. “This will help us make timely forecasts or warnings.”
With this upgrade project, much of the country is getting expanded coverage, with new radar stations seeing approaching severe weather from a greater distance than before.
“We are increasing the range of the Doppler radar from 120 kilometers to 240 kilometers,” says Hoffman.
This distance allows more time for warnings to be issued when severe weather develops.
Extreme weather is the most immediate climate risk for many Canadian provinces, as evidenced by catastrophic events over the past decade.
The overall increase in temperature allows summer storms to hold more water.
This increase has already been felt by many in western Canada: floods that devastated British Columbia in November 2021, severe storms that caused flooding in Calgary and Saskatoon last summer, and record hail in southern Alberta in August.
Radar is one of the main tools used by meteorologists to predict severe storms.