ATC Radar Weather Displays

ATC radar systems are able to display areas of precipitation by sending out a beam of radio energy that is reflected back to the radar antenna when it strikes an object or moisture, which may be in the form of rain drops, hail, or snow. The larger the object, or the denser its reflective surface, the stronger the return. Radar weather processors indicate the intensity of reflective returns in terms of decibels with respect to the radar reflectively factor (dBZ).

ATC systems cannot detect the presence or absence of clouds. ATC radar systems can often determine the intensity of a precipitation area, but the specific character of that area (snow, rain, hail, VIRGA, etc.) cannot be determined. For this reason, ATC refers to all weather areas displayed on ATC radar scopes as “precipitation.”

All ATC facilities using radar weather processors with the ability to determine precipitation intensity describes the intensity to pilots as:

  1. “LIGHT” (< 30 dBZ)
  2. “MODERATE” (30 to 40 dBZ)
  3. “HEAVY” (>40 to 50 dBZ)
  4. “EXTREME” (>50 dBZ)

ARTCC controllers do not use the term “LIGHT” because their systems do not display “LIGHT” precipitation intensities. ATC facilities that, due to equipment limitations, cannot display the intensity levels of precipitation, describe the location of the precipitation area by geographic position or position relative to the aircraft. Since the intensity level is not available, the controller states, “INTENSITY UNKNOWN.”

ARTCC facilities normally use a Weather and Radar Processor (WARP) to display a mosaic of data obtained from multiple NEXRAD sites. The WARP processor is only used in ARTCC facilities.

There is a time delay between actual conditions and those displayed to the controller. For example, the precipitation data on the ARTCC controller’s display could be up to 6 minutes old. When the WARP is not available, a secondary system, the narrowband ARSR is utilized. The ARSR system can display two distinct levels of precipitation intensity that is described to pilots as “MODERATE” (30 to 40 dBZ) and “HEAVY to EXTREME” (>40 dBZ).

ATC radar systems cannot detect turbulence. Generally, turbulence can be expected to occur as the rate of rainfall or intensity of precipitation increases. Turbulence associated with greater rates of rainfall/precipitation is normally more severe than any associated with lesser rates of rainfall/precipitation. Turbulence should be expected to occur near convective activity, even in clear air. Thunderstorms are a form of convective activity that implies severe or greater turbulence. Operation within 20 miles of thunderstorms should be approached with great caution, as the severity of turbulence can be markedly greater than the precipitation intensity might indicate.

Weather Avoidance Assistance

ATC’s first duty priority is to separate aircraft and issue safety alerts. ATC provides additional services to the extent possible, contingent upon higher priority duties and other factors including limitations of radar, volume of traffic, frequency congestion, and workload. Subject to the above factors/limitations, controllers issue pertinent information on weather or chaff areas; and if requested, assist pilots, to the extent possible, in avoiding areas of precipitation. Pilots should respond to a weather advisory by acknowledging the advisory and, if desired, requesting an alternate course of action, such as:

  1. Request to deviate off course by stating the direction and number of degrees or miles needed to deviate from the original course;
  2. Request a change of altitude; or
  3. Request routing assistance to avoid the affected area. Because ATC radar systems cannot detect the presence or absence of clouds and turbulence, such assistance conveys no guarantee that the pilot will not encounter hazards associated with convective activity. Pilots wishing to circumnavigate precipitation areas by a specific distance should make their desires clearly known to ATC at the time of the request for services. Pilots must advise ATC when they can resume normal navigation.

IFR pilots shall not deviate from their assigned course or altitude without an ATC clearance. Plan ahead for possible course deviations because hazardous convective conditions can develop quite rapidly. This is important to consider because the precipitation data displayed on ARTCC radar scopes can be up to 6 minutes old, and thunderstorms can develop at rates exceeding 6,000 feet per minute (fpm). When encountering weather conditions that threaten the safety of the aircraft, the pilot may exercise emergency authority as stated in 14 CFR part 91, section 91.3 should an immediate deviation from the assigned clearance be necessary and time does not permit approval by ATC.

Generally, when weather disrupts the flow of air traffic, greater workload demands are placed on the controller. Requests for deviations from course and other services should be made as far in advance as possible to better assure the controller’s ability to approve these requests promptly. When requesting approval to detour around weather activity, include the following information to facilitate the request:

  1. The proposed point where detour commences;
  2. The proposed route and extent of detour (direction and distance);
  3. The point where original route will be resumed;
  4. Flight conditions (instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) or visual meteorological conditions (VMC);
  5. Whether the aircraft is equipped with functioning airborne radar; and
  6. Any further deviation that may become necessary.
To a large degree, the assistance that might be rendered by ATC depends upon the weather information available to controllers. Due to the extremely transitory nature of hazardous weather, the controller’s displayed precipitation information may be of limited value.Obtaining IFR clearance or approval to circumnavigate hazardous weather can often be accommodated more readily in the en route areas away from terminals because there is usually less congestion and, therefore, greater freedom of action. In terminal areas, the problem is more acute because of traffic density, ATC coordination requirements, complex departure and arrival routes, and adjacent airports. As a consequence, controllers are less likely to be able to accommodate all requests for weather detours in a terminal area. Nevertheless, pilots should not hesitate to advise controllers of any observed hazardous weather and should specifically advise controllers if they desire circumnavigation of observed weather.

Pilot reports (PIREPs) of flight conditions help define the nature and extent of weather conditions in a particular area. These reports are disseminated by radio and electronic means to other pilots. Provide PIREP information to ATC regarding pertinent flight conditions, such as:

  1. Turbulence;
  2. Visibility;
  3. Cloud tops and bases; and
  4. The presence of hazards such as ice, hail, and lightning.