Although ATC systems cannot always detect the presence or absence of clouds, they 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.”

ARTCC facilities normally use a Weather and Radar Processor (WARP) to display a mosaic of data obtained from multiple NEXRAD sites. There is a time delay between actual conditions and those displayed to the controller. The precipitation data on the ARTCC controller’s display could be up to 6 minutes old. The WARP processor is only used in ARTCC facilities. All ATC facilities using radar weather processors with the ability to determine precipitation intensity, describe the intensity to pilots as:

  • Light
  • Moderate
  • Heavy
  • Extreme

When the WARP is not available, a second system, the narrowband Air Route Surveillance Radar (ARSR) can display two distinct levels of precipitation intensity that is described to pilots as “MODERATE and “HEAVY TO EXTREME.”

ATC facilities that cannot display the intensity levels of precipitation due to equipment limitations 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.”

ATC radar is not able to 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 precipitation is normally more severe than any associated with lesser rates of precipitation. Turbulence should be expected to occur near convective activity, even in clear air. Thunderstorms are a form of convective activity that imply severe or greater turbulence. Operation within 20 miles of thunderstorms should be approached with great caution, as the severity of turbulence can be much greater than the precipitation intensity might indicate.

Weather Avoidance Assistance

To the extent possible, controllers will issue pertinent information on weather and assist pilots in avoiding such areas when requested. Pilots should respond to a weather advisory by either acknowledging the advisory or by acknowledging the advisory and requesting an alternative course of action as follows:

  • Request to deviate off course by stating the number of miles and the direction of the requested deviation.
  • Request a new route to avoid the affected area.
  • Request a change of altitude.
  • Request radar vectors around the affected areas.

The controller’s primary function is to provide safe separation between aircraft. Any additional service, such as weather avoidance assistance, can only be provided to the extent that it does not detract from the primary function. It’s also worth noting that the separation workload is generally greater than normal when weather disrupts the usual flow of traffic. ATC radar limitations and frequency congestion may also be a factor in limiting the controller’s capability to provide additional service.