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Radar dome on Mount Ashland to close for repairs

Ryan Sandler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, talks about previous repairs to the agency’s radar dome on Mount Ashland. Mail Tribune / file photo

The National Weather Service’s distinctive white radar dome on the summit of Mount Ashland will be down for seven days next month for hardware upgrades, the Weather Service office in Medford reported.

Perched at 7,513 feet above sea level, the dome, which the agency uses for storm data such as estimates on rain and hail intensity, wind speed and air circulation, will go offline at 7 a.m. Thursday, June 17. During its weeklong nap, the radar’s emergency generator and power transfer station will be replaced, according to meteorologist Ryan Sandler.

“The original generator is from 1996,” Sandler said. “It’s still chugging along, working, but they’re all being replaced across the country.”

The replacement is the final phase in the national NEXRAD Service Life Extension Program, a $150 million endeavor intended to keep the network of 159 radar domes across the U.S. operational into the 2030s. The money comes from the Weather Service, U.S. Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, according to a news release.

In July 2017, the Mount Ashland dome received a new signal processor, followed by a transmitter refurbishment in July 2018, and a pedestal replacement in September 2020. The pedestal replacement was a particularly delicate operation, with crews needing to transport the new pedestal and a crane up a winding, dirt road to the dome, about three miles from the Mt. Ashland Ski Area parking lot.

Sandler compared the ongoing work to a keeping a used car on the road

“Instead of getting a whole new fancy radar, it’s a lot cheaper to just fix the used one,” Sandler said. “And this should be the last of this program to upgrade. We’re almost at the end of the tunnel here.”

By the project start date, southwest Oregon will have been more than a month into fire season on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Radar is the best way to track thunderstorms, which have sparked some of the largest blazes in recent history.

Meteorologists will still be able to utilize satellite data and California radar stations in Eureka and Beale Air Force Base, a station Reno, Nevada, as well as stations in Portland and Pendleton. The public can access any of those stations at https://radar.weather.gov. The agency also utilizes a separate lightning detection network for strikes.

It won’t be ideal, Sandler said, with pulses of electromagnetic energy sent from the adjacent stations only able to see higher level activity within storms.

Sandler added that while there are regional thunderstorms in June, July and August have historically had much more frequent storm activity, Sandler said.

“If you’re going to do it in the summer, it’s better to do it in June than it is July or August,” he said. “There’s no good time to be down a whole week with the radar, but if it’s in the summer, the earlier, the better.”

The National Weather Service issued its first red flag warning of the year this week for potential lightning Friday, one of the earliest warnings in recent years.

Thunderstorms on dry vegetation are expected in portions of the forecast area Friday afternoon, said a post on the Weather Service Facebook page. The average date for the first red flag warning from the Medford office over the past 10 years is June 11, the post said. The earliest was May 5.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.