The U.S. Could Have Wildfire Smoke Radar

Reposted from the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

The U.S. Could Have Wildfire Smoke Radar

Imagine the ability to determine the three-dimensional distribution of wildfire smoke across the United States in real-time.

We can see the spatial distribution of smoke from space but lack the detailed three-dimensional structure

Such a capability–let’s call it smoke radar— would improve weather prediction, because smoke influences temperature and clouds. 

A smoke radar would help protect human health by assisting in the prediction of the future distribution of smoke near the surface.  Air quality forecasting would be improved. 

Smoke radar could enhance aircraft safety 

And a smoke radar would be a potent tool for research, from diffusion studies to climate change.

Best of all, the National Weather Service already has the hardware in place, but simply needs to find the funds to collect the data.  And for a modest additional investment, the current units could be upgraded to dramatically improve their capabilities.

The Opportunity

The National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administrations have weather observation equipment at every major and minor airport across the U.S. (see map).  Roughly 1000 of them.

Called the Automatic Surface Observing System (ASOS), this collection of instruments includes all the expected parameters (e.g, temperatures, wind, humidity, and precipitation) but also includes a device called a ceilometer that can measure the height of the bases of clouds.   

The currently installed ceilometer (the Vaisala CL31, see below) has a laser that sends out light pulses that are reflected and scattered back to the ground by clouds and other atmospheric features.  By timing the pulses and measuring the amount of return, the location and relative density of the target can be determined.

The Vasailla Ceilometer can see targets as high as 25,000 ft, although the National Weather Service only uses its capabilities over the lower 12,000 ft.

But now the exciting thing.  These ceilometers can sense wildfire smoke and penetrate thin to moderate smoke to see smoke layers aloft.    Here is an example from Tacoma earlier this year.  In essence, this device is a smoke radar for the atmosphere above the unit.  And there are enough of them across the U.S. to provide a detailed three-dimensional description of wildfire smoke (and clouds) around the nation.

But the tragedy of it all is that this data is never leaving the devices.   The National Weather Service lacks the communication infrastructure to get this valuable data off the ceilometers, to collect it at a central site, and then to distribute it to eager users.

It is estimated that this would cost approximately 3 million dollars, a very small sum considering the huge value of the information.

But there is more.   The current ceilometers (CL31) represent old technology and Vaisala has a vastly more capable unit (the CL51) that could provide greatly improved smoke information…both in detail and in vertical extent.   

A sample is shown below. Wow.  Really impressive detail.

All the ceilometers in the U.S. could be upgraded for approximately 30 million dollars, a modest investment for such a powerful tool.
A number of U.S. scientific groups have advocated this investment. For example, in 2012, the Thermodynamic Profiling Technologies Workshop (Hoff et al., 2012) recommended that the ASOS network be better leveraged to obtain this data.  Here in the Northwest, a group of air quality agencies, under the leadership of Dr. Phil Swartzendruber of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, has advocated for acqur=iring ceilometer smoke information from ASOS.An Example of the Use of Ceilometer Smoke Information
I personally use ceilometer data during the smoke season for predicting changes in surface air quality…. and my colleagues at Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) do as well.  Both the University of Washington and PSCAA have their own ceilometers.   During last summer,  there were mornings that the ceilometers showed smoke a few thousand feet above the surface, but the air quality was good near the ground.  But we knew that the heated surface would cause vertical mixing (like in your heated cereal pot) and that mixing would bring the smoke down to the surface causing degraded air quality.
It happened, just as expected.  Do I like ceilometers!

These days, there is a lot of talk about upgrading U.S. infrastructure.   With all the concern about wildfire smoke, smoke radar from ceilometers should be high on the list.  And we are fortunate to have a well-placed Senator, Maria Cantwell, who chairs the committee that oversees NOAA and the National Weather Service.

The CL51

Senator Cantwell played an extraordinary role in securing the acquisition of the Langley Hill Radar near Hoquiam, which greatly enhanced weather prediction and heavy precipitation in our region.  Maybe she can do her magic again with the ceilometers.

5 4 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
October 11, 2021 10:30 pm

WTF 4? No, Seriously.
Seeing smoke with radar?? Who GAF?
I guess $25 Trillion in debt isn’t enough?
Certainly not when it seems it’s OPM.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 11, 2021 11:39 pm

At least it would be for real infrastructure, rather than for more statues of Democrat ‘heroines’.

(and they’d probably sneak in a few more of Saint George Floyd as well)

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 12, 2021 12:11 am

Other than an Ivory Tower academic thought curiosity, WTF is having radar 3D coverage of smoke plume’s movement good for? Serious question.

From Salt Lake City or Denver, to Des Moines Iowa, am I going to change my work schedule because some Wx forecaster says there is 80% chance some mid-alt fire smoke plume is coming?
Almost certainly, No. Not one thing will change from such a smoke tracking forecast. Purely an Ivory Tower academic curiosity and no benefit other than an alarmism message to push scam policies.

So WTF is such a capability good for when you’re already up to your eyeballs in debt?

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 12, 2021 4:34 am

You don’t have asthma, knowing that there’s going to be smoke at ground level is kinda important to people who have respiratory issues.

Last edited 8 months ago by Yooper
Reply to  Yooper
October 12, 2021 8:41 am

I doubt any of these smoke forecasts are going to be so much more accurate. If that’s the only justification, prove it will make a meaningful difference. Don’t just throw $30M at a solution to a non-existent problem. We all like toys; if this is nothing more than a weather forecaster’s wet dream, then pay for it yourself.

bill Johnston
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 12, 2021 6:40 pm

Well, it would give me foreknowledge so I can go out and look at the beautiful sunsets caused by all that smoke from the fires out west. snark.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 12, 2021 3:39 am

Oh dear. Did you even take the time to read the story? Hint: It’s mostly about using ceilometer data. It has little to do with the kind of radar that most people envision.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
October 12, 2021 7:56 am


Don’t let your Cliff hatred blind you to the obvious advantage to having these at every airport possibly affected by smoke. The METAR system at airports cannot see smoke, and as a result has induced pilots to try landings that never should have been attempted.

This device would have saved four lives at the Truckee CA airport this summer from smoke visibility issues when the METAR was reporting that all was well. It has application for fire fighting planes as well. Certainly these would be of great value in the West…which is where Cliff happens to live.

IMHO, there is getting to be way too much arrogance over ignorance here. (And too much Griffy as well.)

Reply to  McComberBoy
October 12, 2021 9:42 am

Why did no human object to the hazy conditions at Truckee? Who are pilots and controllers supposed to believe, their lying Mark I eyeballs or the radar?

Reply to  Felix
October 12, 2021 10:42 am

No controllers, per se, at a small airport. The pilots are relying on METAR and are in trouble by the time the figure out that the visibility is not as advertised. Who are you to offer and ignorant opinion about things you cannot imagine, much less do?

Reply to  McComberBoy
October 12, 2021 10:53 am

My bad. Should have referenced AWOS, not METAR. See this:

Reply to  McComberBoy
October 13, 2021 12:13 am

FYI, I invoked a total and complete personal blackout of commercial air travel in 2016. So don’t GAF.

October 11, 2021 10:48 pm

As far as Cliff celebrating his political victory at having his Senator Cantwell pressure NOAA to put their spare Nexrad radar at Langley Hill so he could watch bird migrations, it should be known that the WSR-88D radar used at Langley Hill was a spare radar NOAA procured in case of a disaster at one of its dedicated sites.

Of course nature has her way of teaching lessons about such human folly.

In 2020, Hurricane Laura shredded Lake Charles, Louisiana’s Nexrad radar. So NOAA, without the spare to give them quick restoration, it took heroic efforts and lots of extra dollars to rebuild the Nexrad at Lake Charles because they lacked a ready spare in storage for exactly this event.


Screen Shot 2021-10-11 at 10.48.14 PM copy.jpg
Last edited 8 months ago by joelobryan
October 12, 2021 12:55 am

I think the people in California who have endured weeks of poor air quality in recent years from record fires would have been able to tell you where the smoke was…

That’s record and increasing fires – the facts of that are in the graphs here:
Why the American west’s ‘wildfire season’ is a thing of the past – visualized | Wildfires | The Guardian

Reply to  griff
October 12, 2021 2:58 am

The Guardian, griff? Ok

Fire is an important part of life in the American west and essential for the health of the landscape, but as the climate has changed so have wildfires in the region.”

But they don’t say why

The second US academic in two months, Alexandra Souverneva, has been arrested and accused of serial arson in California. Last month California Professor Gary Maynard was arrested in a separate incident, and accused of being a serial arsonist. “

Academics running around starting fires

Reply to  fretslider
October 12, 2021 9:46 am

There was a third arsonist who confessed at the scene also:

As I’ve posted before though, because of their “issues” with reality, both griff and the Guardian would get the following multiple choice question wrong:

The fires that were set by arsonists in the California Sierras were caused by:

a) Carbon dioxide
b) Arson

You can’t fix whatever it is they have.

Tom Halla
Reply to  griff
October 12, 2021 4:58 am

The wildfires are related to the government rolling over when the green blob blocks any wildlands management program. Defunding or at least fighting The Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth would help.

Jeffery P
Reply to  griff
October 12, 2021 4:15 pm

@griff — Your solution to tracking smoke from wildfires is to poll people in California? Sure, maybe Google will create an app for that.

Reply to  griff
October 13, 2021 12:15 am

Perhaps they should convince liberal academics to cease and desist from the arson.

October 12, 2021 2:52 am

Wouldn’t it make more sense to manage the land instead?

I expect in the green religion such an idea is a cardinal sin, but then religions have a tendency to stifle freedoms, speech and scientific progress. Between the end of the Roman occupation and the Renaissance – roughly 1000 years – nothing happened. The same goes with islam, what has it done in the last 500 years? It’s actually going into reverse.

Peta of Newark
Reply to  fretslider
October 12, 2021 3:30 am

thank you Frets..
manage the land. feed it. water it. grow appropriate plants
Do Not Ever ever EVAH burn or set fire to it.

Fertilise the lands/ plants and soil bacteria
Not with Phlogiston, with Real Plant Food

use that radar to track clouds of crushed basalt as union ready shovels jobs tend the garden.
Because that is what it is and c’mon peeps, play the game = how many of us don’t have any flickering of gardening interest/skill/desire/want/need inside us?

Everybody wants to be as gardener, everybody would want to help

and that 25$ trillion will be paid off in next to no time

bill Johnston
Reply to  Peta of Newark
October 12, 2021 6:45 pm

No I don’t want to be a gardener. I tried it. Damn weeds won. The store has a wider variety than I can grow.

Reply to  fretslider
October 12, 2021 3:51 am

The dark ages were going to happen with, or without, the help of Christianity. In fact, much/most of the evidence of the previous civilization was preserved in Christian monasteries. Similarly, the ability to read and write was preserved by the church. Without that, the dark ages in Europe could have been longer and deeper.

I just watched a video on the collapse of civilization around 1200 BC. link Very interesting (if you’re that way inclined.)

Reply to  commieBob
October 12, 2021 4:25 am

Christianity was firmly in control; Pope above Kings.

I don’t do what ifs, you cannot know what would have happened without Christianity – a thousand years is a long time. You can tell me you think that….

Reply to  fretslider
October 12, 2021 6:11 am

30 Million would go a long way towards reducing fuel loads in populated areas.

Jeffery P
Reply to  fretslider
October 12, 2021 4:13 pm

Even with land management, there will still be wildfires. $3 million is a paltry sum. We can possibly transfer funds out of diversity and antiracism training to pay for it.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jeffery P
Peta of Newark
October 12, 2021 3:47 am

and in any case, The Network is already there.
The Wunderground Personal Weather Stations.

There are 1,000’s of them = all connected to the web and reporting in every 5 minutes (actually recording/logging at 5 mins)
In reality they are all constantly ‘live’

Simply fit every one of them with Solar Power Meter – many of them already have solar meters in fact. Its how I calibrate my home-made Solar Meter:
£25 for a Lascar Logger and pretty well zilch for a solar cell out of an LED garden light

Compare the readings from them with what you’d expect from El Sol under a clear sky and bingo, there’s your ‘radar’
Is the actual height of the smoke/cloud/whatever really All That Important?

OK OK, won’t work at night but er, how to put this, Don’t fires ‘glow in the dark’
How many people need a radar to see fire at nighttime?

Sorryyyyyyyy, Silly Question, just tell me how many Climate Scientists there are and there’s your answer…

Last edited 8 months ago by Peta of Newark
October 12, 2021 4:47 am

Talking of wildfires….

Insulate Britain protesters set light to court injunction papers outside Royal Courts of Justice in London

Insulate Britain protesters have set light to court injunction papers outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

Some 18 activists wearing orange hi-vis vests burnt pages of injunctions that had been individually served on them, on the pavement outside the court building.

Ordinarily anyone breaking an injunction would be in jail, but none of these people are. They are being used to enable Parliament to pass new draconian anti-protest legislation.

That’s why they are allowed maximum disruption – unless the public steps in before the police arrive…

NB Burning paper releases….

Last edited 8 months ago by fretslider
October 12, 2021 6:02 am

Ceilometers are normally used to measure the the altitude of cloud bottoms. How would one discriminate a cloud from smoke?

October 12, 2021 6:11 am

Anyone else “hear” the voice of Billy Mays (Oxi-Clean fame) in their head while reading this?

D. J. Hawkins
October 12, 2021 7:05 am

Because this proposal is meaningful, useful, and relatively cheap, it will never be implemented.

jimH in CA
October 12, 2021 8:30 am

There are 250,000 general aviation pilots that would benefit from knowing the altitude of smoke layers. I large number of these pilots fly under visual flight rules, meaning we have to have at least 3 mile visibility.
A number of times, I’ve checked the metars and they were showing 10 miles and clear below 12,000 ft., here in northern CA.
At the airport, it looked clear, but when I took off, when I got to 900 ft, I had ‘0’ forward visibility, but I could still see the ground. I was able to return the the airport, cancelling my flight and put the aircraft back in the hangar.

Landing under similar conditions would be a danger to VFR pilots, are was mentioned in the recent Truckee crash, killing all onboard.

$30 million as part of the $3-5 trillion spending package is ‘peanuts’.

October 12, 2021 9:01 am

A good quantitative ‘smoke index” is exactly what arsonists are looking for as a measure of their success.

Pat from Kerbob
October 12, 2021 10:55 am

Never hurts to have more information. Should also lead to better forecasts. We had a bad smoke year here in Alberta due to fires in BC and NW USA, many days it never got near the predicted temps and these were almost always heavy smoke days so obviously the smoke is lowering temps by blocking sunlight?

Last edited 8 months ago by Pat from Kerbob
October 12, 2021 12:50 pm

Does smoke effect women and people of color most? If not, why bother?

J Mac
October 12, 2021 3:09 pm

The US taxpayers have higher priorities for $30 million! Let NOAA and the National Weather Service carve the money out of their own very generous budgets.

Jeffery P
October 12, 2021 4:11 pm

The money we spend amazes me, and the priorities amaze me even more. How is it possible the NWS doesn’t have a means to transmit this data in real time? How is it possible there is so much obsolete equipment in use?

Reply to  Jeffery P
October 12, 2021 7:34 pm


Paul Johnson
October 12, 2021 10:37 pm

In case you’re wondering (I was), the CL51 is about four feet tall.

October 13, 2021 12:12 am


%d bloggers like this: