A broken radar is leaving a gap in the weather forecast — and the shutdown has slowed repairs

On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken. (WYDaily/Courtesy Google Maps)
On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Google Maps)

As the federal government shutdown trudges on, federal workers are still either working without pay or furloughed.

Those affected include Coast Guard members, Transportation Security Administration workers and Department of Justice employees.

But there’s been another casualty from the shutdown: the National Weather Service in Wakefield’s radar equipment.

On Sunday, NWS Wakefield employees discovered their radar was broken, said Meteorologist-in-charge Jeff Orrock. The Wakefield radar gathers data for northeast North Carolina, Hampton Roads, central Virginia and parts of the Eastern Shore.

The radar pedestal’s slipring package was causing the equipment to short-circuit, shutting down the radar, throwing circuit breakers and frying other components.

“It’s a critical component,” Orrock said.

Sliprings are large metal discs under the radar that rotate and allow current to pass from one part to the other. The slipring package is maintained often, but equipment that runs 24/7 is still subject to breakage.

Orrock said the federal shutdown delayed the approval process for ordering new parts and getting the equipment fixed, although by Wednesday morning the repairs had been approved. The National Weather Service is housed under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Orrock said the parts for the radar had been ordered and the radar could be fixed and back online as early as late Thursday or early Friday.

The radar may be getting repaired soon, but in the interim, meteorologists must work around a dead zone in their weather data.

Weather radars near Blacksburg and Northern Virginia, as well as Raleigh and Morehead City, North Carolina, help cover the area skies affected by the broken radar.

The curve of the Earth means radars in the distance can reach mid-levels of storms near Wakefield, but nothing on low or ground level, Orrock said.

For ground-level weather, meteorologists are relying on wind sensors on rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and land sensors. That means meteorologist may not be able to make a forecast as far in advance as they usually do when the full radar is operational. The sensors are used to observe weather as it happens.

So, for Thursday, meteorologists know to expect some rain and gusty winds, but will be on the lookout for any weather events that require special warnings.

“We’ll have to be a little bit more careful,” Orrock said. “If we have to issue warnings, we’ll need to give them more lead time.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.