An update on Level 3 super-resolution radar imagery

WSR-88D Radar
The National Weather Service is going super-resolution with level 3 radar data. Here’s what that means for you.

I wanted to give you an update on my earlier article on super-resolution radar coming from the National Weather Service. Currently, we provide it to our customers by the exact same process that the National Weather Service will be providing it early next year. As you might recall, they had the ability do it, except for one issue: satellite bandwidth. That issue has now been resolved, and they will now have the ability to send out the data in a timely matter starting on February 22, 2022, in full…but they will be sending it out starting in groups to make sure the satellite feed can indeed handle it starting on February 2. I am not expecting any issues, though.

So, let’s go over some questions people may have about this change.

1. Will super-resolution level 3 radar data now be available to everyone, not just AllisonHouse subscribers? Yes. The National Weather Service will make the data publicly available on their websites as well.

2. Since #1 is true, why in the world would I need AllisonHouse for super-resolution radar data? That’s a great question, and the answer is, for multiple reasons:

A, The super-resolution data will be sent via satellite to their websites, as well as to us. We have several satellite dishes across the country to get the data. If ours goes down, or misses a piece of data, we automagically pluck it from another dish instantly. If any of you have ever had satellite TV or Internet, you know what happens when significant precipitation (rain, ice, snow) gets on the dish. With our setup, we have industry-leading quality reception that ensures we have ZERO data loss. That cannot be said for the NWS websites.

B. The data files are not huge, but they are 4 times larger than before. That means that the NWS servers will have a significant risk of getting bogged down. We use our own servers, preventing this issue from occurring.

C. Our amazing ingest software gets us the data in *milliseconds* after it is sent by the National Weather Service. That means there is no real delay of the data from us to you.

3. OK, but will this require a software upgrade? It depends. For GRLevel3, absolutely yes. But Mike Gibson is fully aware, and will have an update out to handle it. For others, it depends. One thing is for sure: don’t worry about it, but watch for any updates as we get to February 22 to avoid any data loss on your end.

4. So what is “super resolution” anyway, and how will it help me? It’s the highest version of resolution you can have that the radar puts out. This was only available to Level 2 data users, such as through RadarScope, and GRLevel2/GRAnalyst. The resolution is a quarter kilometer x 1/4 degree per pixel. Having said that, at distances beyond roughly 90 miles, you will notice little difference between super-resolution and standard resolution data as the beam width of the radar gets larger as you get farther from the radar. But obviously, if you are closer to the radar, you WILL notice a big improvement in resolution, and you’ll be able to see small features a lot better, such as “hook echoes” on supercell thunderstorms, outflow boundaries, sea breezes, and sometimes warm and cold fronts.

5. Do I need to upgrade my laptop/desktop to handle this? The answer is “it depends”. If you’re using a computer that is 8 years old and have a low-end video/graphics card, slow load times and animations could be a problem for you. For those of you who have decent speed on your laptops and desktops now (or faster), chances are you’ll be fine.

6. Do I need to upgrade your mobile phone to handle this? If you are using RadarScope and aren’t having problems, then no. Otherwise, any smartphone made in the last few years should be just fine.

7. Will my Windows-based software and super-resolution work on Windows 11? Yes.

8. Will there be a cost increase at AllisonHouse for this? No.

9. Will radar mosaics go “super resolution”? Not in the near future. Those are designed for you to see “the big picture”. Having said that, they ARE derived from Level 2 super-resolution data, so you can still see hook echoes on supercells, but not other features as described above, or at least not in super-resolution. Radar mosaics tend to filter out fronts, lake and sea breezes, outflow from thunderstorms, etc.

So, there it is in a nutshell. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have on this, to the extent that I can. And here’s a quick reminder: The old WSR-57 and WSR-74 radars in this country were super-resolution, had only one color, and couldn’t be transmitted to much of the public due to cost. If you wanted a paper copy via fax machine of it, a company charged $1 per image back in the 1970s. That’s $7 per image, adjusted for inflation, in 2021.
How far we have come!

BREAKING NEWS: National Weather Service to send out super-res reflectivity and velocity products on or about December 1, 2021

WSR-88D Radar
Want super-res level 3 radar reflectivity and velocity products? Soon, it will be available to everyone!

On August 4, 2021, AllisonHouse was informed of an upcoming planned major change by the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Radar Operations Center (ROC). Behind the scenes, I have requested this to happen for a *decade*, and now, it’s finally happening!

Beginning on or about December 1, 2021, “standard definition”, or standard resolution level 3 base reflectivity and velocity products, will no longer be sent on the National Weather Service primary data feed, known as NOAAport. We receive this feed from our satellite dish in Oklahoma City in real-time.

If the planned change is executed without incident or delay, super-res base reflectivity and velocity products will replace those lower-resolution products on December 1, 2021. If you subscribe to AllisonHouse, the change should be largely transparent and without issue, with the following caveat: I am quite sure that new versions of your favorite Level 3 radar display software may be needed to decode these new products. Keep watching your app support/social media pages for the latest information.

We will be losing Echo Tops from the data feed, but these can still be found on the NWS raw data websites, and we will likely be pulling that product from there.

So, an obvious question: Why do we need AllisonHouse now if the super-res products will be available on public NWS servers?
Remember, we bypass the clogged NWS data servers that now have download restrictions on them. We also have redundant ways to get the radar, by the fastest methods possible. Not to mention, all of the other data you get such as ENTLN and GOES GLM lightning, watches, advisories, warning, statements, GOES-16/17 imagery, and much more, making us an incredible value!

ANY weather software producer that handles level 3 radar data (including GRLevel3 and RadarScope) will need to update their software to be able to handle the new data. I can reassure you, that generally will not be a problem for them, but it might be for you as you will have to update your software as soon as it becomes available. We’ll have updates closer to the switchover date. However, I suspect this might be delayed somewhat past December 1, as some other vendors may not be able to handle this in time for the deadline. But, hopefully, IF it is delayed, it may only be by a few months. We will see!

The future of NOAA Weather Radio backhaul? Cellular

The National Weather Service is changing how they get the NOAA Weather Radio audio to their transmitter sites. Douglas Fehr/Unsplash

The National Weather Service (NWS)’ NOAA Weather Radio gives you life-saving weather alerts from blizzard to tornado, flash flood, and severe thunderstorm warnings. But, do you know how that audio and those alerts reliably gets to your weather radio?

It starts at your local National Weather Service office. From there, it traditionally goes from copper phone lines to fiber at the local phone switching center, then back to copper in the closest switching center to the transmitter, and then to the transmitter itself, where the dual copper phone line gives the audio to the transmitter that you hear on your radios.

But, this is now 2021. Many broadcast towers just have fiber to them. And many more don’t even have that: the phone and Internet on the cell tower are received, or “backhauled”, via a microwave antenna…and that microwaved signal is received from a phone switching center many miles away.

So what happens when the National Weather Service needs to move their NOAA Weather Radio station to a new tower that has no copper connections? They’ve been asking that question to reduce costs and increase reliability. We now know the answer to that question.

On May 28, 2021, NOAA Weather Radio station WXJ-76 in Champaign, Illinois became one of the first (there are a few others that beat them) NOAA Weather Radio stations to receive the broadcast using cell phone technology. Here’s what the National Weather Service (NWS) says about it:

“The broadcast originates at the NWS office in Lincoln, Illinois. The signal is sent from the NWS Lincoln office through cell towers to reception equipment at the tower site. WXJ-76 is one of the first NOAA Weather Radio sites in the country to use cellular phone service to relay broadcast signals (most weather radios rely on landline phone service).”

But, you might protest, won’t this affect reliability? The answer is that it shouldn’t. The cellular receive antenna for WXJ-76 is far better than on the best smartphone you can buy. If one tower goes down, it can pick up the signal from several other towers. Storm chasers know that with a signal booster, cellular signals in west Texas are known to go out over 40 miles! With an external antenna, a 20 mile range is doable. Is overloading a concern? Even if a tower becomes overloaded, prioritized traffic can still get through, even when, for consumers, they may be out of luck. I was in Galena, IL on a Memorial Day weekend, and I had *zero* bars of coverage. Oh, my provider has multiple cell towers there; they were just overloaded. But priority traffic can and will still get through.

Furthermore, in the next 3 years, 5G will be everywhere. As it is, the NOAA cellular broadcast is mostly just going over their provider’s network connection. And, with 5G, there is no “voice” channel on the cell towers, just the data/Internet channel. That’s it. With 5G, the cell towers become glorified 5-10 mile radius Wi-Fi hotspots (larger range with an external antenna, as mentioned above). And since copper phone lines are being abandoned, and with 5G being able to handle a lot more capacity, the future for data transmission to remote towers is via microwave antennas on the tower, sending and receiving the Internet “signal”. And, that’s happening in many cases already, right now. Do you see a big circular dish (or more than one) on a cell tower? That tower is getting the 4G voice and Internet and, where the equipment has been installed, lower-end 5G signal via that microwave antenna.

Adding to the changeover to cellular: analog landline/Internet and low-end fiber connection prices (think DSL) are going through the roof for commercial customers this year, and that is intentional so that users are forced to switch to a much more modern and faster technology….cellular! An FM radio station with a tower just southeast of Kirkland, IL out in the middle of a cornfield just switched to cellular after their DSL Internet costs to get the audio to their transmitter site more than tripled in one month. The station sounds better than ever on cellular, and the downtime has been zero. They use two cellular providers for redundancy, and they never have had issues since the switchover.

Welcome to the future of NOAA Weather Radio, in getting the audio to the transmitter sites (known as a “backhaul” feed, or how you get the signal to the transmitter). By being available to nearly every tower, the Weather Service now has more options if a tower becomes abandoned, unusable, or is no longer wanted by the hosting party. And look for improved audio clarity and fidelity, along with high reliability. The future looks (and sounds) good for NOAA Weather Radio!