Buggy Weather Radar

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


featured_imageWeather radar is a wonderful thing — and many of us depend on it to know such important facts such as “When will that rainstorm hit my area?”.

At sea, I used my on-board radar to detect the edges of rainfall and rain squalls, track them, and predict when and if they would affect our little sailboat.  Occasionally, I used the radar to “see” through rainfall and detect the navigation buoys (which had special radar reflectors mounted on them) that marked the entrance to a safe harbor (the sailing equivalent to “flying on instruments”.)

Some of the online (and broadcast media outlets) use “future radar” to predict the movement of storms — computerized projections mapped on the radar graphic as if it were actual radar return.

“Modern weather radars are mostly pulse-Doppler radars, capable of detecting the motion of rain droplets in addition to the intensity of the precipitation. Both types of data can be analyzed to determine the structure of storms and their potential to cause severe weather.”  —  Wiki

But pulse-Doppler radar doesn’t just detect raindrops….  Generally, pulse-Doppler  returns reflections from moving particles (rain drops, dense clouds on the move, falling snow or hail, etc)  “However, not all non-meteorological targets remain still (birds, insects, dust).”

The featured image for this essay (at the beginning) is a weather radar image from the area north of San Diego, California (between Lancaster and Palm Springs) on the evening of the 4th of June.  From an NPR report quoted in Science Alert:


“It was very strange because it was a relatively clear day and we weren’t really expecting any rain or thunderstorms,” meteorologist Casey Oswant of the National Weather Service in San Diego told NPR.

“But on our radar, we were seeing something that indicated there was something out there.”

The answer?  Ladybugs.  Not dense like a cloud but was observed as “little specks flying by”.  The LA Times reported: “… the ladybug bloom appears to be about 80 miles by 80 miles, but the ladybugs aren’t in a concentrated mass that size. Rather, they’re spread throughout the sky, flying at between 5,000 and 9,000 feet, with the most concentrated mass about 10 miles wide.”

That’s a lot of ladybugs!

Like many things in science, there is controversy about what caused the radar image.  Some etymologist entomologists are quoted saying that it was not yet warm enough for such a swarm and another [of course] was worried that it might be an effect of climate change.

NBC News has a 30-second short video on weird things seen on weather radar.

In October of 2017, migrating monarchs showed up on weather radar in the Denver,  Colorado area as  a “swath of butterflies … more than 70 miles wide, extending across all of Arapahoe County.”

In July of 2015, weather radar reported a vast swarm of grasshoppers and beetles in Texas near Copper Breaks State Park in Quanah, Texas:


 CNN reported:  “We didn’t have any clouds yesterday to form anything like that,” said Jonathan Kurtz, a meteorologist at the Norman Forecast Office. “Our first indication was some kind of biological feature.”

“What the radar was picking up was bugs, lots and lots of them. Grasshoppers and beetles were flying between the ground and 2,500 feet, covering an area of about 50 miles.”

This is not just a fun and interesting unintended side-benefit of weather radar:

”USDA scientists in College Station, TX, have shown that signals routinely collected by the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Doppler radar network could serve as an early-warning system to track corn earworms and other nighttime traveling pests.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) meteorologists John Westbrook and Ritchie Eyster at the Southern Plains Agricultural Research Center in College Station focused on the capabilities of what is known as Next Generation Weather Radar, or NEXRAD.

The results showed that NEXRAD was not only capable of tracking insect migration patterns, but it was also superior to the older scanning X-band system in offering a much larger detection range and an ability to determine the direction and speed of insect migration flights without need of weather balloons. Results were published in the International Journal of Biometeorology in April 2013.”      Source:  USDA

Some examples are shocking:

Massive Cloud of Flying Midges Descends on Cleveland, Visible on Weather Radars

“Bug derecho: Swarm of Mayflies caught on radar in Upper Midwest”

 And this is not a phenomenon restricted to the United States.  Over the water in the United Kingdom,  a Science Magazine article in 2016,   “Radar spots trillions of unseen insects migrating above us” , relates:

“Birds and human vacationers aren’t the only creatures that take to the skies each year to migrate north or south. An analysis of a decade’s worth of data from radars specifically designed to track airborne insects has revealed unseen hordes crossing parts of the southern United Kingdom—2 trillion to 5 trillion insects each year, amounting to several thousand tons of biomass, that may travel up to hundreds of kilometers a day.

The numbers, reported in this week’s issue of Science, are “stunning,” says Silke Bauer, an ecologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach. “Wow,” adds Larry Stevens, an evolutionary ecologist at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. “Can you image what these numbers look like in tropical settings, say, over the basins of the Amazon or the Congo?”

Although some insect migrations are well known (think monarchs), the new work takes a systematic approach to flying insects and hints that such mass movements are surprisingly common. These airborne invertebrates, their bodies packed full of nitrogen and phosphorus, could move significant amounts of key nutrients across the globe. “Insects are little creatures, but collectively they can have a big impact; comparable in magnitude to large ocean migrations [of plankton],” says Lael Parrott, an environmental geographer at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, Canada.”

One of the insects that migrates to and from the United Kingdom is the highly beneficial insect — the hoverfly.


One paper, whose title tells it all, is “Mass Seasonal Migrations of Hoverflies Provide Extensive Pollination and Crop Protection Services”.

A report in Science Magazine informs us:

Each year, hundreds of millions of hoverflies cross the English Channel from continental Europe, according to a new radar-based study. Most migratory insects around the world are pests, such as locusts, but luckily for U.K. farmers, the hoverflies are friends.

“The potential benefit is quite large,” says Ben Woodcock, an entomologist with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, in Wallingford, U.K., who was not involved in the study. Many hoverfly species pollinate crops, he notes, and their larvae consume aphids, which are pests of wheat and other crops.

Most insect migrations are invisible to the naked eye. But researchers can track and identify them with narrow radar beams. In 2016, a group using the technology and led by ecologist Jason Chapman at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom reported that trillions of insects migrate in and out of the country each year.”

Seeing insects on your weather radar screen ?  “Its Not a Bug, It’s a feature!”

The folks at weather.com give us a neat little video primer on  how and why insect movements appear on weather radar.  Not just insects, of course, but birds, and bats and dust and trains and ski lifts.

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Author’s  Comment Policy:

Hope you enjoyed reading about bugs and weather radar — a light-hearted look at something that was once a problem and is now a specialized tool for tracking mass insect movements that might provide advanced warning of potential damaging insect swarms.

Have a good  weekend,

and Thanks for Reading.

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June 14, 2019 6:15 pm

Very nice post! I often try to explain to people that what they see on the local news weather radar is not really what the weather “lady” is claiming it is. Response? “What?!?! She just said so!” At which point I point out how the lady doing local weather always seems to be pregnant, and ask”Is it required in her contract that she be pregnant to do the weather or that once pregnant she must do the weather?”. That is a debate they usually can get behind, whether or not local weather radar is accurate at all being just a bit too complicated, apparently.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 6:44 am

Huge flocks of birds are, too. Driving through Cincinnati into Kentucky we passed under thousands of small birds, got to hotel later and watched local news and they discussed how they showed on weather and airport radar. Very neat to see as it was happening from below.

Samuel C Cogar
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 8:42 am

So sayith did — Kip Hansen – June 14, 2019 at 7:14 pm

Insects in such massive swarms is just a neat fact….

And respondith did — 2hotel9 – June 15, 2019 at 6:44 am

Huge flocks of birds are, too.

And Sam C injected his 2 cents, to wit:

Was justa thinking how utterly “cluttered” the East Coast’s 19th Century radar images would have been during the Passenger Pigeon migrations.

Not only that, …… travelling by airplane would have been a “NO-NO” during said migrations.

The numbers are so great the sky itself begins to darken,” an excerpt from The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller.

Joe Crawford
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 11:07 am

Sam, it doesn’t take the Passenger Pigeon of yore to clutter up radar. Years ago, at the FAA’s Long Range Radar site near Lynch, Ky, the screen at night, in season, was often cluttered with huge flocks of birds migrating up/down the Atlantic flyway.

Reply to  2hotel9
June 15, 2019 7:05 am

The bugs start flying lower and lower, the birds start flying lower and lower.
The bees start flying lower and lower.
Pretty soon the flowers are growing higher than the bees.
And the birds are tryin’ to fly underground.

It’s all part of those 50% of species that are going extinct because of CO2.

Reply to  2hotel9
June 16, 2019 8:22 am

Several years ago I was working for the Corps of Engineers in Cincinnati, OH. This was before the availability of the commercially provided mosaicked radar loops and we had access to the raw data from the local NWS radar site. Every morning at sunrise there would appear for a few seconds what I can best describe as what looked like a nuclear explosion. When we asked the Weather Service what this was their answer was that they thought that it was caused by all the birds taking off at dawn.

Reply to  SMWisbith
June 17, 2019 4:45 am

I believe the year we saw the birds flocking we went from 71 to 275 to 71 and saw them after crossing the river and going west. As we came off the bridge first saw them and they kept swirling over the roadway for about 2-3 miles. It was awesome, nature in action. Usually we just stay on 71 through town, love counting all the Steeler bumperstickers on Ohio tagged vehicles as we go past Bengals stadium.

Tom Halla
June 14, 2019 7:02 pm

A literal bug on the radar?

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 1:48 pm

Not as bad as having your radar “jammed” like in Spaceballs……………

GP Hanner
June 14, 2019 7:10 pm

I used x-band radar during my flying career. It was before pulsed doppler. I have picked my way through lines of thunderstorms many times, both over land and water. I also learned to use it to detect other aircraft in the vicinity of my aircraft (about 20 nautical miles.

Barclay Edwin MacDonald
June 14, 2019 7:46 pm

So what would the radar on oil tankers in the Straights of Hormuz be able to detect? Projectiles? Would it be recorded?

Reply to  Barclay Edwin MacDonald
June 15, 2019 6:29 am

Would not pickup the sappers attaching mines to hull, though it may pickup there insertion/extraction boat.

Reply to  Barclay Edwin MacDonald
June 15, 2019 7:09 am

Something in the air for just seconds could be missed on a sweep of a navigation RADAR that takes from 3 to 10 seconds; boats are not equipped with what could be called “Mortar Detection RADAR”, nor do they have the detection capability to detect fast-moving projectile(s) that Patriot Missile batteries are designed to detect.

These RADARS on boats are navigation RADARs. They look for other slow-moving boats, ships, and channel and pier-marking/denoting buoys.

Reply to  _Jim
June 15, 2019 8:38 am

Jim ==> Quite right. Marine navigation radar is looking for stationary or slow moving boats, shorelines, nav buoys, and weather features line rain squalls. The circular sweeps are pretty slow — several seconds at least, painting the targets on the screen on each sweep. Things on one’s marine radar that change every time the beam sweeps are of great interest as that means they are moving very fast in relation to one’s boat.

Marine radar, properly adjusted and tuned is pretty good at picking up and reporting rain squalls and storm fronts — in rough seas one has to tune out the wavetops which appear as stippling on the screen.

Marine radar doesn’t return good images of non-metallic or very low-laying things, like small wooden fishing boats off the coast of Portugal — with only a single oil lamp for lights.

Joe Crawford
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 11:17 am

“Marine radar doesn’t return good images of non-metallic …” that’s way we always flew a radar reflector at the top of the mast, about 60 ft. above the water. It might bang
around a bit in a blow, but we sure felt better knowing it was up there.

Reply to  Joe Crawford
June 15, 2019 2:21 pm

Joe ==> We had one on one of the main mast stays as well, for the same reason. Oddly, they work rather well, returning a sharp dot on marine radar.

Johann Wundersamer
Reply to  Barclay Edwin MacDonald
June 15, 2019 9:07 am

Barclay Edwin MacDonald June 14, 2019 at 7:46 pm

So what would the radar on oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz be able to detect? Projectiles? Would it be recorded?


wouldn’t it be up to patrol boats / vessels to detect and record dangerous flying objects by onboard operated radar.

Reply to  Johann Wundersamer
June 15, 2019 2:24 pm

You are on open water it is up to YOU to look out for yourself. If that open water includes anti-ship ordnance and torpedoes and sappers planting mines and armed drones, well, we have seen ample proof that depending on others is lethally foolish.

June 14, 2019 7:47 pm

Ladybugs flying at 5,000 to 9,000 ft. is what got my attention. Must have been some kind of an updraft. Bugs do use them. I watched several hundred butterflies at a time using the updraft from the Galt House Hotel in Louisville on the bank of the Ohio River. They used the draft going up the side of that building to gain altitude and then used that altitude to cross the river. Quite fascinating.

Reply to  rah
June 15, 2019 12:46 pm

Do they have to get a clearance from ATC to be in the Louisville Class-C airspace?

Reply to  observer
June 15, 2019 6:57 pm

Why should they? Years ago at Ft. Devens, MA we often had to shut down the ranges because private pilots violated the restricted airspace over the post. Twice in the 5 1/2 years I was there I was in an aircraft ready to jump and we had to make multiple race tracks around the DZ because some dumbass was flying behind us wanting to get a good look at paratroopers going out the door or off the ramp. You wanna see a bunch of pissed of troopers? Make them stand for multiple race tracks fully rigged for a combat equipment jump with about 130 lbs of parachute, weapons, and equipment on them. People that wonder why a person would jump out of a perfectly good airplane simply have no idea why going out the door is actually a relief even in training.

Reply to  rah
June 15, 2019 8:12 pm

Wow, totally at 90-degrees to my joke…but I can tell you were really pi$$ed off about that so I am glad I gave you a chance to get it off your chest. FYI, if it makes you feel any better, I never do MOAs w/o flight following from the controlling agency.

Reply to  rah
June 15, 2019 8:21 pm

rah — just curious if you know: Is that the airspace R4102A/B that you’re referring to? If so pilots are supposed to get in much trouble for going in there…do you know if those folks ever got busted? I hope they did.

Reply to  observer
June 16, 2019 6:04 am

I don’t know what the classification of the restriction was. My understanding was that private aircraft were restricted from passing over the post lower than 10,000 ft. 24/7/365. At 10,000 ft. and above no freefall was allowed because the post was located so close to Logan Airport so high altitude jumps had to be done elsewhere. Private pilots from the several fields in the area violated the restriction all the time and I never heard of any of them getting nailed by the FAA for it. It got so bad that Sen. Ted Kennedy sobered up long enough to show up to be briefed on the problem and other concerns but to my knowledge nothing came of that.

So during the downsizing in the late 80’s and early 90’s the Army shut down that post which was a good decision despite it’s interesting and extended history and the fact that the Reserve Component Mobilization Command for all of New England was located there. The post was too small and too much development had grown up around it over the years and frankly a lot of the local population was less than thrilled about the presence of the US military in their midst. When conducting live fire training with 81 mm mortars we were restricted to a maximum of charge 3 because of the lack of space on the range. One day when my team was live fire training on a 106mm Recoilless rifle we were shut down after just a few rounds because a woman from Harvard called up and said the noise was causing distress for her husband that had just gotten home from heart surgery.

There were two major active duty units on the post. 10th SFG(A) Group HQ, and 2nd and 3rd Battalions that went to Ft. Carson, CO. The US Army Signal Intelligence School that went to Ft. Huachuca, AZ.

June 14, 2019 7:53 pm

Bird murmurations, insects, ash, what else?

Reply to  markl
June 14, 2019 8:17 pm

Not honeybees. AGW has killed almost all of ’em off. Or so the pro-AGW mainstream media tells us.

James McManus
June 14, 2019 7:56 pm

Pretty much every year at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin (about 20 miles south of Green Bay) there are videos of the lake flies showing up on weather radar. Clouds of swirling bugs saturate the radar signal. Pretty neat, except they explode at the slightest pressure, and I had to clean the stupid things off my sailboat for the next several weeks.

June 14, 2019 8:02 pm

Tell me if I am right. The radar has controls for beam intensity and gain. During times with lots of clouds and precipitation the radar beam intensity and/or gain are reduced so the radar readout isn’t overwhelmed by energy reflected back, which would cause a giant blob on the screen.
During clearer times the radar beam intensity and/or gain are increased since most of the energy keeps going and going and isn’t reflected back. This causes ground clutter or allows for detecting biologics.

Tell me if I am right. In my experience, the location the storm is at is off by several miles from where it is actually at.

Reply to  archie
June 15, 2019 7:16 am

archie June 14, 2019 at 8:02 pm
Tell me if I am right. The radar has controls for beam intensity and gain. During times with lots of …

Literal VOLUMES have been written on the WSR-88D’s various modes and operational capabilities; they have gone way beyond simple STC (Sensitivity Time Curve) modification of receiver’s sensitivity versus time (for proper display on a PPI display) for instance.

Want to know more? See “Introduction to the Weather Surveillance Radar WSR-88D”


Reply to  archie
June 15, 2019 1:05 pm

When you look at Nexrad images on the web, I believe it will be displayed in one two modes (see Wikipedia page on NEXRAD) — clear air and precip mode. You can often tell when clear air mode is being shown because ground clutter often shows up near the radar site. This may not reflect the actual mode settings of the radar itself — I don’t know about the correlation between NEXRAD data products and actual radar modes.

Another buggy behavior is anomalous propagation. With one form of this (super-refraction), the beam can arc back to the ground and images of ground reflection are returned. This often can be spotted as reflections that look like spokes of a wheel emanating from the radar location.

Reply to  observer
June 15, 2019 1:36 pm

observer June 15, 2019 at 1:05 pm
When you look at Nexrad images on the web, I believe it will be displayed in one two modes (see Wikipedia page on NEXRAD) — clear air and precip mode.

observer, that is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as the saying goes.

The “modes” are actually defined according to what are termed “Volume Coverage Patterns” or VCPs for short. These define rotational sweep rates, how many elevation ‘slices’ are taken and even PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency) and PW (Pulsewidth).

Regarding “Clear Air” modes – There are three clear-air mode VCPs; 31, 32 and 35. VCPs 31 and 32 complete a volume scan using five elevation angles in about 10 minutes.

Precipitation Mode – When precipitation is occurring, the radar does not need to be as sensitive as in clear air mode as rain provides plenty of returning signals. VCPs 12, 212, 215 and so on define the “Precipitation mode”.

More here on this subject: https://www.weather.gov/jetstream/vcp_max

Ronald Ginzler
June 14, 2019 8:26 pm

Entomologists would know more about ladybugs than etymologists, who would only know the history of the word.

Reply to  Ronald Ginzler
June 15, 2019 12:39 am

I caught that, top. But it’ll never be corrected so why bother pointing it out? (I asked myself)

Reply to  Ronald Ginzler
June 15, 2019 6:15 am

Ronald ==> Both you and Brian are smarter than my auto-spell checker — which seems to turn itself on and substitute words it thinks I mean to type….gotta love modern tech.

John F. Hultquist
June 14, 2019 10:12 pm

I’ve seen masses of Lady Bugs on sun-warmed stumps in shallow snow.
No radar needed.
Like this, but this one isn’t mine:
jpg of bugs

Reply to  John F. Hultquist
June 15, 2019 3:12 am

aussie ladybugs come in orange and red…do yours?

Reply to  ozspeaksup
June 15, 2019 5:10 am


Reply to  John F. Hultquist
June 15, 2019 6:27 am

John ==> New York State Insect: Ladybug. Coccinella novemnotata, the nine-spotted ladybug or nine-spotted lady beetle, is a species of ladybug native to North America.

Coccinellinae contains all the ladybugs and their different types. There are a lot of them.

This weekend, my wife and I found a three-spotted ladybug here in NY state, where the nine-spotted is the state Insect.

June 14, 2019 11:04 pm

Radar stands for radio detection and ranging.
Ever wounder why the first microwave ovens were called RADARanges

Reply to  jmorpuss
June 15, 2019 6:30 am

jmorpuss ==> Thanks for the basics reminder and the link!

Don K
June 14, 2019 11:57 pm

The US National Weather Service has a web site that displays regional Doppler radar returns for the continental US, Alaska, and Hawaii. It has a number of interactive filtering/processing options. It’s kind of fun to observe although there seem to be some coverage problems due to topography. https://radar.weather.gov/radar.php?rid=cxx&product=N0R&overlay=11101111&loop=no

Reply to  Don K
June 15, 2019 6:31 am

Don K ==> Yes, that’s go-to site for local and regional weather radar. Thanks for sharing the link.

June 15, 2019 2:56 am

Thanks Kip – that was fun – but ” Some etymologists are quoted saying that it was not yet warm enough for such a swarm and ..’. Are you sure this is true? Maybe if they were discussing the origin of the word ‘swarm’, but unless this is one of those puns that goes right over my head (and perhaps appears on radar) maybe ‘entomologists’ …

Reply to  DaveW
June 15, 2019 6:33 am

DaveW ==> I’m a victim of my auto-spell checker and replacer! They say that’s a feature too.

Tom Abbott
June 15, 2019 3:25 am

I think all those ladybugs must originate at my house. I have a multitude of them around the house every spring! When I spot them inside, I get a plastic cup and gather them up and put them outside where they belong. 🙂

Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 15, 2019 6:37 am

Tom ==> When enough ladybugs gather inside your walls to overwinter, they attract even more ladybugs….it is very creepy to have several thousand ladybugs crawling out of the wall on the inside of the house in the spring….

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 8:51 am

Kip, thanks for the link — didn’t see this until after I already replied below. Fortunately my ladybug numbers vary and last couple yrs haven’t been as bad. More stink bugs as usual now, tho.

June 15, 2019 5:13 am

So why is it pouring rain and there’s nothing on the radar whatsoever?

(Anyone can answer—I’d love to know the answer to this.)

Reply to  Sheri
June 15, 2019 10:27 am

Readers ==> Can anyone answer Sheri’s question? What does the weather radar sometimes miss rainfall?

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 2:29 pm

Sometimes it occurs from a layer below the scan level of local radar? Terrain features block radar from “seeing” it? The pregnant weather “person” is indisposed in the lavatory and not updating to broadcast what the radar is seeing? There are other reasons, I’m sure.

Reply to  Sheri
June 15, 2019 11:10 am

Sheri June 15, 2019 at 5:13 am
So why is it pouring rain and there’s nothing on the radar whatsoever?

I’m going to assume you are in the US and referring to the NOAA/weather service owned S-band WSR-88D RADARs and not local TV RADARs or the smaller network of FAA TDWR C-band RADARs:

a) Stale RADAR display; refresh browser image.
b) Website has source set to wrong/static image.
c) RADAR image is normally delayed 4 to 5 minutes. Some websites delay more for ??? reasons.
d) Defective RADAR; controlling authority not aware, stale RADAR image sent to users
e) you live behind a mountain where the WSR-88D can’t see.

1) I have seen a) and c) on occasion.
2) I have never seen b) or d). I use 3 or 4 different NEXRAD sources, none of them *glitzy* (IOW, non-commercial).
3) The NWS does have a website that shows each WSR-88D’s status.
4) I have seen cases where the WSR88D (NEXRAD) is noted to be down, but, imagery is not shown in that case.
5) For e) the NEXRAD RADARs were designed to ‘see’ precip out to 124 nmi but at that distance the height is about 10,000 feet due to curvature of the earth. It’s possible for something to form lower than that and yield precipitation, but living behind a mountain will block the RADAR ‘beam’ from seeing any precip too.

Reply to  _Jim
June 15, 2019 2:26 pm

_Jim & Sheri ==> Thanks, Jim, that’s a good complete answer.

Sheri, you satisfied or mystified?

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 7:21 pm

a) I refresh the display every time I look.
b) and c) I check four different sites.
d) defective radar—again, four sites, which admittedly do not always match

One of the sources is NWS out of Riverton. It does seem more accurate. One is “lynx” radar on a local station. Another is the weather channel and it asks to be updated after a few minutes.

However, you are on to something with e)!!! I do indeed live behind a mountain and am at least 80 miles straight line from the Riverton radar. Casper Mountain tops out at 8100 ft. So there may indeed be some “hiding” of the precipitation from the radar depending on where the radar is located. From three directions, there are mountain ranges—only radar from the east would not encounter mountains. So, I would say I am satisfied with answer e). Thank you!

Scouser in AZ
June 15, 2019 7:41 am

I’ve been soaring in the Mojave desert and joined flocks of birds circling at over 10,000 ft.

They are there eating bugs..:^)

Reply to  Scouser in AZ
June 15, 2019 8:25 am

Scouser in AZ ==> Very cool — wish I felt better about heights. Roaring seas barely phase me, but tall ladders? Soaring and hang-gliding always appealed to me, but never got into while I was still young enough.

June 15, 2019 8:22 am

Interesting. On warm, late autumn days, thousands of ladybugs swarm on my house, trying to find winter shelter. Many get into the walls and during the winter find their way into the house. The attic can end up w/thousands of dead ladybugs by late-spring — not able to find their way out & cooked by the hot attic temps.

Flight Level
June 15, 2019 8:31 am

Hey, look, that’s calm there we might as well punch thru ! No, its actually much worse, it’s called shadowing, attenuation prevails.

But they’re closing on us ! Nope, those are not UFO’s, switch to manual mode and lets find a way out of this electrostatic mayhem before it smells fried feathers…

Bottom line, the weather radar is a wonderful illusionist and not an absolute instrument.

Reply to  Flight Level
June 15, 2019 9:19 am

Flight Level ==> Like almost all things truly useful, weather radar (and radar in general — and sonar for that matter) are complicated and nuanced . . . . . a casual approach is not suitable when lives are at risk. I’ve seen boats and ships do crazy stupid things because the Captain was looking at the radar/sonar instead of out at the real world.

I’ve also served on the bridge of a vessel as radarman and had a Captain screaming at me to make that thing with the light on it show up on the radar . . . . as it turned out, it was a small wooden vessel with a very bright light (intended to keep vessels like ours from running it down).
We got close enough to hail the boat and still nothing showing….

Flight Level
Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 2:07 pm

Lol, Kip, “that thing with the light on it” … Priceless deck chatter 😉

Reply to  Flight Level
June 15, 2019 11:27 am

Flight Level June 15, 2019 at 8:31 am
Hey, look, that’s calm there we might as well punch thru ! No, its actually much worse, it’s called shadowing, attenuation prevails.

One of the perils of X-band (~10 GHz or 3 cm) RADAR – not much storm-penetrating capability! But, when all you have room for on an aircraft is the space behind the nosecone and still want a reasonable definition of targets (using a narrow RADAR beamwidth) X-band is about your only choice.

And, the reason S-band (~ 3 GHz or 10 cm) RADAR is used by the NWS NEXRAD WSR-88D series RADAR sets for weather observation. S-band yields sufficient precip penetration capability to be useful.

Even the C-band (~5 GHz or 6 cm) FAA TDWR (wind sheer detection) RADAR sets experience some ‘shadowing’ (blocking) from heavier precipitation.

Flight Level
Reply to  _Jim
June 15, 2019 2:22 pm

Anyway the most valuable tool grumpy old captains have to inculcate the live saving instinctive fear of Cumulonimbus and the benefits of pitch&power if ever…

As the saying goes, climate doesn’t kill, weather does.

Reply to  Flight Level
June 15, 2019 3:47 pm

re: “pitch and power”

As long as, the grumpy old captain is on the flight deck to make that flight control input, or guide junior officers; I give you the counter-example of AF447, where that wasn’t the condition until too late, and all the poor souls on board, unfortunately, perished.

Flight Level
Reply to  _Jim
June 15, 2019 6:36 pm

Precisely what I had in mind when redacting what’s above. Peace with them.

Whoever reads, never disrespect weather or your birth certificate will be gone with the wind before you can even wet your pants.

Weather. Majestic. Unpredictable. Reason I reach peak grumpiness levels when wannabe world savior greens even mention it. Let alone dump trainloads of bad science. And ultimately claim to precisely know how taxes can influence it.

June 15, 2019 1:42 pm

The S-band 10 cm weather radars can detect smaller-sized objects near that length of the microwave wave and smaller, such as raindrops, snowflakes, snow and/or ice pellets, hailstones, smoke particles, metallic particles known as chaff dropped from planes, insects, and birds, IF there are enough particles to be sampled within the radar beam.

Smoke from forest fires that is elevated a couple of thousand feet (or at least at an elevation intersected by the radar beam) can be seen; area WSR-88Ds clearly showed the smoke plume from the twin WTC tower locations on 9/11 and for days afterward blowing southward over the NY bight, as the winds were from the north behind the cold front of the night before (9/10) for many days thereafter. One neat feature occasionally seen on radar was the depiction of a blob just before and around sunrise, usually along and near waterways, where flocks of birds were taking off after a night’s rest. It weakened on subsequent about-5 minute scans before disappearing as the birds dispersed.

There have been times, especially before the appropriate clutter-suppression algorithms were employed just after the deployment of the WSR-88Ds, when one could see movement within the ground clutter, which was vehicular traffic on known highways.

Reply to  4caster
June 15, 2019 2:08 pm

re: “There have been times, especially before the appropriate clutter-suppression algorithms were employed just after the deployment of the WSR-88Ds, when one could see movement within the ground clutter, which was vehicular traffic on known highways.”

You must have spent some time at a WSR-88D RADAR site to have seen that; the digital data brought back through the leased T-1 trunk was processed to accommodate transmission on digital trunk line and does not transport or show raw RADAR data or movement in real time …

Manual control of the old WSR-57 could have yielded this kind of observation, however, since those sites employed RADAR consoles that were manned (WSR-88D sites are not manned).

June 15, 2019 1:45 pm

“Buggy radar”
A few years ago watching a local storm on radar:

comment image?w=680

Trust me, the storm was not that bad……………………….

Reply to  matthew w
June 15, 2019 2:32 pm

matthew ==> We’ve had a couple of weather radar experts weigh-in in above — maybe one of them can explain the “false alarm” on your storm.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
June 15, 2019 3:42 pm


On a “static”, non-looped display its hard to interpret what one is seeing – with a looped display, one can determine the speed of the target, this aids in identifying the target! Differentiation from enhanced “ground clutter” (often seen just after dusk b/c of boundary layer cooling) and stationary targets within reach of the RADAR can also be ID’d this way, when using time-looped RADAR imagery.

A skilled RADAR operator also becomes skilled at looking for particular dynamic storm features, like BOW echoes and in-flow notches (usually associated with a ‘hook’ or pendant echo). Doppler (velocity) may show the usual velocity ‘couplet’, but sometimes those are not as readily seen at distance on the RADAR display, but the “right moving” (right moving with respect to upper level/mid level driving or ‘mean’ winds) T-storm cells are notable on time-looped imagery as well as can be seen those tornado-capable cell features like pendant echoes and associated in-flow notches.

Smoke is a feature that shows up distinctly too.

And, one becomes acclimated to using a particular set (brand) of tools, one is thrown off one’s game when looking at another display where non-standard colors or icons and terrain shading is used.

June 16, 2019 6:04 am

…now if they can just give us a radar return on fireflies, it would make hunting them so much easier.

What??? I can dream, can’t I?

Reply to  Sara
June 16, 2019 1:38 pm

Sara ==> A little later in the summer we will have plenty of fireflies for you if you visit the Central Hudson Valley….

June 17, 2019 7:40 am

Late comment Kip
Science should always be questioned, right?
Here’s an alternative site that does just that. You might like to take a look…


June 17, 2019 10:38 am


Thanks for reading!

And special thanks to those who shared their personal stories with buggy weather radar and radar in general — especially to those readers with professional expertise who filled in some of the blanks and answered other readers questions.

Every once in a while it pays to brighten things up here with a light-hearted but interesting (I hope) essay.

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