While driving east on I-64 in eastern St. Charles County, before you round the bend toward the Daniel Boone Bridge and enter into Chesterfield Valley, you might spy the Missouri Research Park. The 200-acre business park, which can be seen from the highway, is part of the University of Missouri system and serves as the home for multiple technology and research-based agencies.
If you keep looking, you also will see a large white globe on top of a steel frame tower set back about 300 yards from the highway. The structure rises above the office park but does not look like a normal business structure or even a water tower. It looks more like a large golf or soccer ball.
That globe and tower are part of an advanced Doppler radar system operated by the National Weather Service St. Louis office [NWS-SL]. The Doppler system and related technology, used by dedicated, expert professionals can help save your life and the lives of your family members.
NWS-SL is part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration [NOAA] branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The mission of the National Weather Service [NWS] is “To provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.”
Kevin Deitsch, a warning coordination meteorologist for NWS-SL, met with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine to provide a briefing about what the facility does and how they do it.
The NWS-SL facility is responsible for a 24-hour weather watch over an area covering 46 counties in total, with 29 in Missouri and 17 in Illinois. The area stretches from here north to near the Iowa border, west to Missouri’s own Boone County, east into west-central Illinois, and into parts of southeast Missouri.
“The biggest cities we serve in Missouri are Columbia, Jefferson City, Mexico, Farmington, and metro St. Louis/St. Charles,” Deitsch said. “In Illinois, we serve Quincy, Carlinville, Vandalia, Chester, and Metro East St. Louis.”
Specifically, according to Deitsch, the Weldon Spring facility “provides information and warnings to the public about severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, winter storms, and floods.”
They broadcast to NOAA weather radios in homes by using radio transmitters scattered throughout the area, including:
- St. Louis, MO
- Bourbon, MO [Crawford County]
- Hannibal, MO [Marion County]
- Columbia, MO [Callaway County]
- Fredericktown, MO [Madison County]
- Salem, IL [Marion County]
- Jerseyville, IL [Jersey County]
- Chester, IL [Randolph County]
- Hillsboro, IL [Montgomery County]
- Jamestown, MO [Moniteau County]
- Bellflower, MO [Montgomery County]
Deitsch said NWS-SL provides information via conference calls to entities like the Missouri Department of Transportation [MoDOT] and directly to emergency management departments of counties and major cities in their area of responsibility, including the St. Charles County Emergency Management Office in O’Fallon and the St. Louis County Emergency Management Office in Ballwin.
According to Deitsch, this is all done with a facility of 21 people, meteorologists and also technicians who maintain the Doppler radar; a NOAA weather radio transmitter; satellite dishes; and computers.
In an effort to be prepared for anything at any time, the facility has a minimum of two expert meteorologists on duty at all times to monitor, report, and issue warnings 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, every day of the year. This includes holidays as well.
“When severe weather, winter weather, or flooding event occurs, staffing is surged via overtime and flex hours to as many as 16 meteorologists to ensure everything can be handled in a timely manner,” Deitsch said.
Deitsch explained further that NWS-SL also is the lead office for all six NWS offices in Missouri when the state conducts its annual Severe Weather Preparedness Week.
This year, the awareness-themed week took place between March 2-6.
“Throughout the state, everyone should have heard the tornado siren test at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 10,” Deitsch said. “NWS-SL issued the test Tornado Warning allowing local communities to sound their sirens Tuesday morning. We don’t have anything to do with the siren activation itself; that is done at the local level.”
Severe Weather Preparedness Week isn’t the only special occasion NWS-SL has been on-call for.
The Weldon Spring facility has provided weather forecasting and weather monitoring for public safety by sending meteorologists in-person to major local events such as the Missouri State Fair, the 2018 PGA Championship that was held at Bellerive County Club in Town & County, the NHL All-Star Game held at Enterprise Center and the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show & STEM Expo held at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.
“For smaller events such as Fair Saint Louis, support is provided remotely by monitoring and communicating from the NWS facility,” Deitsch said. “This local presence and integration into the community is one of the most important things that NWS Weldon Spring does.”
Tools of the trade
The facility’s on-site Doppler radar enables tracking and measuring weather movement in three dimensions, including wind rotation in addition to straight-line movement and speeds. That makes detecting and tracking severe weather and tornadoes more reliable than previous radar systems and enables earlier warning of the public about impending danger.
When it was installed in 1994, the Weldon Spring Doppler radar center became part of a new NOAA/NWS network [at that time] with better technology that enabled a reduction of the total number of its weather stations nationwide from 250 to 115.
The Weldon Spring Doppler radar system was then upgraded in February 2012 to better detect the severity of tornadoes and produce more detailed images of heavy rain, hail and storm debris. That date helped create more specific, detail warnings that could be then sent out to the public faster and more efficiently.
The Weldon Spring office uses additional information from other Doppler radar sites in Missouri, such as in Springfield and Kansas City. They also pull from sites in Lincoln, Illinois; Paducah, Kentucky; and Evansville, Indiana to cover all 46 counties in their area of responsibility across Missouri and Illinois. According to Deitsch, the facility also utilizes data from a Federal Aviation Administration shorter-range radar in north St. Charles County. Those other radars provide additional area coverage beyond the range of the Weldon Spring site. Any overlaps provide feedback data from different angles and different altitudes.
In addition to radar, the NWS facility uses an Automated Surface Observing System [ASOS] to detect dangers to the public.
NWS-SL receives longer-range forecasting data directly from the NWS/NOAA supercomputer in Washington, D.C., plus via the Internet from other supercomputer sites such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research [NCAR] just west of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
A future forecast
Just as the weather is constantly changing, the Weldon Spring facility has multiple upgrades just around the corner to provide the most accurate feedback to families near and far.
Deitsch said that the NWS-SL Doppler radar round cover will be removed this summer in order to refurbish the pedestal and extend the life of the radar tower.
He also explained that the facility’s computer and the NWS overall use the Automated Weather Information Processing System [AWIPS] to process all of the radar and other data to produce forecasts.
“In early 2022, NOAA/NWS is scheduled to triple the capacity and double the storage and interconnect speed of its supercomputers, creating better forecast model guidance with higher-resolution and more comprehensive models, using advanced physics and improved use of data,” Deitsch said.
A bit of history
NWS has 122 weather forecast offices, plus regional and national centers. Now a part of the NOAA and the U.S. Department of Commerce, it originally was known as the United States Weather Bureau from 1890 until 1970, when its name was changed to the “National Weather Service.” As an agency of the federal government, most of its products and services are in the public domain and are available free of charge.
NWS has been in St. Louis officially since Oct. 12, 1870, when it established an office at 210 Olive Street in downtown St. Louis that was, at the time, overseen by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
The office was subsequentially moved several times, including to the corner of 6th Street and Locust Street, then to the Custom House [“the Old Post Office”] at 8th Street and Olive Street, then to the nearby Chemical Building, then to the former Railway Exchange Building at 600 Locust Street, then to the Courthouse at 12th Street and Market Street.
In 1958, NWS moved to the Administration Building at Lambert Airport, then in 1974 to 4100 Mexico Road in St. Peters. Then, in two phases between 1990 and 1992, the office relocated to Missouri Research Park in Weldon Spring. That is where operations remain today.