Sunday, March 18, 2007

Scanning Houston Weather Radars

I don't know what the most popular links are on our Houston-area local news sites.

I'm guessing, however, that they have to be the "live" weather radar images.

When the Gulf-Coast storms come rolling through, it doesn't matter if we are at work or at home, Lavie and I often head to our favorite Houston weather radars on-line to see what is coming.

Sometimes it is downright scary!

In the Early Days...Intellicast

A lifetime ago, when we first got on the Net, just about the only radar site worth keeping an eye on (for me at least) was over at Intellicast.

The radar images were big and really detailed. You could even animate them. However, there was often a bit of "lag-time" between the current time and the posted radar image time. That made it challenging to really tell what was going on.

Was that big purple cell coming my way? Or was it the one that had already passed?

Soon, the The Weather Channel's website came into play and also had some nice radar images.

Now with ViperMaxVectorPentangular Radar 7000!

The local news guys figured out real quick that by providing detailed and current radar imagery to the hungering on-line masses, they could provide a public service and (no doubt) drive tons of page-hits from the local populations.

And the radar-races began.

As a non-radar technologist, I really can't sort out the reality from the hype...but I knows me on-line radars and why I keep going back to some more than others.

Here are my Houston weather radar links (in order of preference) and why I like-em.

These are not all-inclusive! There may be others as well, but these are the ones I frequent the most.

Note: These are only my opinions on Houston on-line radar images...are are no-way a reflection on my opinions for the on-air weather news casts or radar imagery.

And by "Regional/Closeup" views...I mean Houston and the surrounding counties...

First Place:'s Mega Doppler Radar

  • Time lag between image and current time: currently 7-10min
  • Default image size: Appx. 500x425 px
  • Animated looping supported?: Yes
  • Regional/Closeup views?: Yes (9)
  • Registration required?: No

Why do I like this site? The regional/closeup views are well divided by the counties, offering nine more detailed county coverage views. That also is more than any other competitor. However, they are on a bit of thin-ice. KTRK seems to have recently updated it to show a satellite image underlay. I'm not real impressed by that. The green sat-image is very busy and while cool, makes it hard to pick out the major highways and the smaller cloud/storm cells can be hard to pick out.

Second Place: Click2Houston's Doppler 2000Plus Radar

  • Time lag between image and current time: currently 7-10min
  • Default image size: Appx. 640x480 px
  • Animated looping supported?: Yes
  • Regional/Closeup views?: Yes (4)
  • Registration required?: No

Two things really stand out with me with Doppler2K+. First, the background image consists of shades of green with clearly defined county lines. This really makes the freeway grids really pop out and it is very easy to pick out storm cells in relation to the freeways. I (generally) really prefer that background instead of the high-tech sat-view images. Secondly, the default image size is the largest offered by any of the contenders. That size level makes it very nice to view at a glance. Unlike the other competitors who have mini-view regional images to make selection easy, Click2 requires use of a smaller "drop-box" above the image. While, it does provide a clearer site page, it is not as convenient to find and use.

Third Place: KHOU's Doppler Radar

  • Time lag between image and current time: currently 10-23+ min
  • Default image size: Appx. 175x130 px
  • Animated looping supported?: Yes (after registered user login)
  • Regional/Closeup views?: Yes (7) (after registered user login)
  • Registration required?: (yes for detailed radar views)

I really want to rate this radar site higher...but there are two thing that force me to knock it down. First, registration is required to view any more detailed views. That's too bad. I know that registration is sometimes a necessary evil but all of the other sites don't require it to get nice radar imagery. Second is the lag time between radar image and "real" time on the non-registered user views. It's often pretty high. So while the radar images may be doesn't help much if the really red/yellow/purple storm cell image is too old to be of any use. Those major drawbacks aside, once you DO register and log in, the images and options are pretty spectacular. Positive points abound: First registered users can click on a "desktop" link which will open a small 320x240px (appx.) no-ad popup window that can be left open with your other desktop windows...really nice for monitoring the frequent Gulf-coast downpours between spreadsheets and network data. Second, users can click the "large" link and get a ad-heavy popup window sized at 640x780px (appx.) that gives a very clear view without all the sat-image fussiness. Third, going deeper onto the Doppler Radar link, a very well designed Harris County radar image appears. It is sized at a generous 560x470px (appx.), allows for selected view of rainfall totals, tracking, hail, warning boxes; and you can add/remove overlays of topography, roads, labels, boundaries, cites and county names. Really nice. It can be looped, or paused and this particular radar image is about 7min or so behind current time. And, fourth, it has nice, very clear color choices for the radar images and backgrounds so it is highly "readable" in tracking storm cells.

Drop the registration requirement and this would likely be #1.

Fourth Place: myfoxhouston's FOXRAD radar

  • Time lag between image and current time: currently 7-10 min
  • Default image size: Appx. 400x300 px
  • Animated looping supported?: Yes
  • Regional/Closeup views?: Yes (4)
  • Registration required?: No

The images on this site also get lost under the bright-green sat-image picture. Also, the scale is pretty wide and it is much more difficult to see detailed imagery of specific storm cells in relation to your physical location. A strong positive point goes to FOXRAD for the larger images provided. Find the little magnifying glass icon and click on it. A pop-up window is generated and weighs in at a very large 640x480px (appx.) size. Really nice. Still it's hard to see good freeway level detail and forget about street-level detail.

Honorable Mention:'s Weather NexRad radar

  • Time lag between image and current time: currently 1 min
  • Default image size: Appx. 355x360 px
  • Animated looping supported?: Yes
  • Regional/Closeup views?: No
  • Registration required?: No

Why? Well, because even though it does not give any "closeup" metro or surrounding county views, it displays an image matched almost exactly to my system clocks. That means it appears to be providing static images that are almost "live". Not bad, even if the Harris county is the size of my thumb in the default view. Click the "Enlarge Image" link and a nicely sparse 460x470px (appx.) popup window appears. A little better detail. All in all, nice when you need a wide view radar image of what is happening at this exact minute.

The Future of Local Radar Images? has a neat new feature that may be where radar needs to go next...especially for the local boys.

It's their stunning "Interactive Weather Map (beta)"

Powered-up by Microsoft Virtual Earth, it overlays radar data with (in many areas) street level mapping. Wowzer!

The default image is sized 600x400px (appx.) and is nicely colored. Nothing too bright. It works well. Image data is about 5-10 minutes behind "real" time.

Using the intuitive interface, you can select overlays of Radar, Clouds, Clouds & Radar, or None.

Not only that, but by use of a simple slider-bar, you can adjust the weather imagery transparency levels.


Well, this is where things get wicked cool. Zoom!

As I noted, it is powered by Microsoft's Visual Earth mapping engine. So just click on the map where you want to view and zoom on down.

Zoom levels depend on the area you are viewing, but I was able to zoom down close enough on downtown Houston to be able to clearly read the Toyota Center logo and name on the building. That's pretty darn close.

And the storm/radar data gets zoomed and overlayed as well.

Hot Tamales!

So although it isn't real-time useful to see what torrent is coming down on you right that instant, it is pretty cool to watch.

So if Microsoft is doing this...I only wonder how long it will be before Google and their powerhouse of satellite mapping goodness follows suit. does offer an "enhanced" version of this as well with no ads, faster local radar maps, and customizable views, all for the low, low price of $24.99/yr.

Bonus: Houston Road-Cams and Traffic Map

And have you seen the cool Houston TranStar road-cam page?

Give me that and their Houston Real-Time Traffic Map and I am all set for a day in the field on the highways and byways of Gulf-Coast Houston regional travel.

Isn't modern technology cool?

If you have any other favorite Houston-area on-line weather radar image sites, please drop a tip in the comments...I'm always looking for more.

Happy skies!


No comments: