Radar technology key for NOAA’s hurricane forecasts hits setback

The $70 million funding bid over five years failed because of flaws in NCAR’s proposal, according to two senior NOAA officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on grant decision-making.

The decision follows the busiest hurricane season on record, when communities were ravaged by rapidly intensifying storms, which are difficult to forecast and are increasingly common in a warming world.

The radar, known as airborne phased-array radar or APAR, would be mounted on aircraft and flown into storms, scanning hurricanes and other storms in all directions.

Compared with the current generation of Doppler radars mounted on the tails of the NOAA’s hurricane hunter P-3 Orion aircraft, this new technology is considered vastly superior in its ability to gather information. Tail Doppler radar is akin to an x-ray when scanning the skies, whereas a phased-array system is more like an MRI.

NCAR confirmed to The Washington Post that its request to build out the phased-array system was not granted. One senior NOAA official said failed bids of this sort, for which work had already begun under previously provided funding, are unexpected.

NOAA, a partner of the NCAR in developing the radar systems, had hoped to incorporate the system into its updated fleet of hurricane hunter aircraft in the next decade. Its aging fleet of P-3 turboprops flew a record 58 missions in 2020 and are likely to need replacing by 2030. NOAA plans to use C-130 aircraft for which APAR is being designed.

In a Dec. 22 email to staffers at the research laboratory in Boulder, Colo., obtained by The Post, Everette Joseph, the director of NCAR, said it was “disappointing” not to receive the funding. Joseph, a meteorologist who has held research posts at the University of Albany and Howard University, is a leading candidate to head NOAA in the Biden administration.

In a joint statement with Joseph, Antonio Busalacchi, the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which oversees NCAR, told The Post that they are awaiting a formal debrief from the National Science Foundation to better understand the decision.

“We are already making plans to resubmit, pending the debrief, in order to advance the design and construction of this important research instrument,” Busalacchi and Joseph wrote.

Cost for radar said to be insufficiently justified

The two senior NOAA officials said they learned NCAR’s initial funding request was rejected because it failed to adequately describe and justify the costs of the project.

“My understanding is that the proposal just had a big price tag and no real budget breakdown,” one official said in an interview.

The second official called the failed proposal a “significant setback” considering the need to replace NOAA’s aging hurricane hunter fleet and integrate the new radar technology.

NOAA has been working with NCAR on developing the phased-array radar since around 2012, providing several million dollars in funding in addition to the money spent by the NSF, including a $2.3 million award in 2017.

The NSF did not respond to questions specific to NCAR’s unsuccessful bid but said in a statement to The Post that successful proposals “had to pass a number of review criteria,” which included the “ability to be executed for the proposed or revised budget.”

NCAR’s proposal was submitted as part of the NSF’s Mid-scale Research Infrastructure solicitation, which is intended to give the agency a flexible way of funding experimental research costing between $20 million and $70 million. The cap was recently increased to $100 million.

Busalacchi and Joseph, with input from Vanda Grubisic, the principal investigator for the airborne phased-array radar, wrote that NCAR had received at least $10 million for the program from NOAA and the National Science Foundation over the past eight years.

The development of the radar has also involved a number of universities and companies in private industry. To date, NCAR’s work on the phased-array radar has involved developing a prototype, studies to ensure the technology will meet the needs of the science community, an assessment of the safety of mounting the radar system on aircraft, and engineering and software development.

A dilemma for NOAA

Although NOAA can still make use of the radar development work carried out to date, NCAR’s failure to receive this program funding will, at the very least, delay the progress of what is considered a game-changing technology for storm research, monitoring and forecasting.

Rear Adm. Michael Silah, the director of NOAA’s office of marine and aviation operations, explained that NOAA has been relying on NCAR’s development of phased-array radar as a proving ground so that NOAA could leverage this technology for a new fleet of C-130 hurricane hunter aircraft starting around 2030, which would replace its two P-3 aircraft.

In an interview, Silah said the plan was for NCAR to develop a research radar system that it would mount on its in-house C-130 for testing.

“Then [NOAA] would come in after that and develop an operational variant,” Silah said. “But without them developing research radar, we’re going to have to develop an operational radar system on our own.”

Silah said NOAA intends to develop a cost estimate for the project and is likely to engage private industry in completing the work. He called the cut in NCAR funding a “community loss” and “unfortunate” but stressed that NOAA has to press ahead.

“This is critically important for NOAA,” he said. “I think it will be [a] revolutionary, not just evolutionary, leap in atmospheric research. There aren’t too many chances to do that.”

How phased-array radar could improve forecasts

An airborne phased-array radar system consists of thousands of transmitters and receivers spread across four square arrays strategically placed on an aircraft’s fuselage. They scan the sky and “can provide unprecedented detailed observations of the dynamics and microphysics of high-impact storms,” according to an NCAR fact sheet.

The data collected by the phased-array radar, when integrated into computer models, could improve forecasts for hurricanes and other hazards investigated by aircraft, including non-hurricane severe weather and winter storms.

UCAR’s website states that the radar will “directly support NOAA’s long-term Mission Goal of developing America’s capabilities as a ‘weather-ready’ nation and will directly address NOAA’s strategic objective of providing improved understanding and timely alerting of severe and adverse weather events.”

Whereas hurricane track forecasts have improved dramatically in the past several decades, progress in predicting the strength of storms has lagged, especially those that intensify rapidly. For example, during the historic 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, 10 of the record 30 named storms rapidly strengthened. But official forecasts, which rely on computer models as well as observations, frequently failed to fully anticipate the changes in their ferocity before they struck land.

The first senior NOAA official who commented on the NSF’s funding decision said hurricanes tracking through the Gulf of Mexico were frequently underpredicted by two intensity categories during the 2020 season. “There’s some deficiency in the [forecast] models, and we don’t know why,” the official said in an interview.

The official said that if more airborne data was brought into the models, forecasts probably would improve. Phased-array radar has “really proven itself out on the ground,” the official said. “To have that kind of information airborne I think would be pretty phenomenal.”

Busalacchi and Joseph wrote that NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division has performed computer modeling studies to evaluate the impact that airborne phased-array radar could have on improving hurricane forecasts.

Frank Marks, the director of that NOAA division, said in an email that the delay in the phased-array radar “will impact our ability to provide the best forecast guidance” to the National Hurricane Center from computer models.

Radar system may still have a path forward at NCAR

Busalacchi and Joseph said that despite not receiving the award to design and construct the radar, it is “premature” and “misleading” to suggest funding for the program had ceased.

“A mix of NSF and NOAA funding is in place” to continue supporting the project, including the design of the radar system, the two program leaders wrote.

Busalacchi and Joseph wrote that the initial, though unsuccessful, radar proposal “received excellent reviews that speak of APAR’s merit in support of research to the academic community and its high potential for research to operations … specifically the transition to NOAA operations.”

In his email to NCAR staff, Joseph wrote: “We have been encouraged to resubmit our funding proposal in the next year, and we are hopeful that this new proposal will be accepted for support.”

Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.

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