Greg Johnson, a well-known tornado hunter, says the radar that monitors twisters in southern Saskatchewan has become a laughingstock in the weather-watching community.

“The storm chaser joke is that the Bethune radar northwest of Regina works great, unless there’s a storm, in which case it’s likely to go out,” said Johnson. 

A scan of media reports over the past few years confirms that the Bethune radar, located just outside of Regina, often breaks down in the midst of storm season.

Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson, a Saskatchewan-based tornado hunter, says the Bethune station's technology is 'old and it’s outdated and that radar station likely needs to be replaced.' (CBC)

It happened once again on Friday morning.

The director of the national radar program for Environment Canada, Gaetan Deaudelin, blamed “a problem with the big antenna there.”

“This is the usual wear and tear of this big piece of machinery. It runs 24 hours a day,” said Deaudelin.

He said repair technicians weren’t sent until Monday in order to avoid overtime costs, but pointed out Environment Canada would have sent a technician if meteorologists believed a weather threat was imminent.

The radar is now back online.

'Flying blind' in storm season

Johnson said this four-day outage is alarming for anyone concerned about severe weather.

“Essentially, we’re flying blind,” Johnson explained.

“The general public or even Environment Canada has no ability to track storms in the region, and that’s from the U.S. border up to about Davidson.”

Johnson told CBC’s iTeam this is the worst time of year for the radar to break down, and he said the Bethune radar is arguably the most important one in Canada.

Radar graphic

Environment Canada radar can track tornadoes within a radius of 100 kilometres. The red concentric circles around points on this graphic show the areas covered when the Bethune radar station is out of service. (CBC)

“This is the area that has the most opportunity and chance for severe thunderstorms.”

A 2012 study found that Canada averages 62 tornadoes a year and Saskatchewan gets 18 of them.

Johnson points out that when funnel clouds threaten in Saskatchewan, the unreliability of the Bethune station creates a serious problem, because it’s the only one covering much of southern Saskatchewan.

“There’s really no redundancy built into the system. The radar stations are so far apart that if one goes down, there ends up being a black hole of information where there’s no coverage.”

Bethune radar 'favourite spot for bad luck'

This breakdown is just the latest in a long series of frustrating troubles for people who rely on the radar.

Regina MP Ralph Goodale said it’s shocking and worrying how often this happens.

“It’s not a problem that just happened this year. It also happened last year and the year before and the year before and the year before,” Goodale said.

'It’s not a problem that just happened this year.'—Regina MP Ralph Goodale

“It’s a situation that the government has had at least four years of warning about, and one would have thought that this problem would have been fixed.”

Deaudelin acknowledges Bethune has seen more than its share of problems, caused in some cases by mechanical problems and at other times by lightning strikes.

“It seems like Bethune might be a favourite spot for bad luck maybe,” he said.

Ottawa not releasing details of Bethune troubles

Deaudelin said Environment Canada has a database keeping track of every time one of its 28 radars goes down. It notes when and why the breakdowns happened, and for how long.

He said it was created two or three years ago, following a 2008 auditor general’s report criticizing the agency for failing to track all of this data in one place.

Radar

Environment Canada has a database to keep track of its 28 radar installations. It notes when and why the breakdowns happened, and for how long. (CBC)

Despite several requests from CBC, over a period of a week, Ottawa has not released that information.

Deaudelin was able to tell CBC that over the past five years, the Bethune radar has been working 96 per cent of the time. He said it’s down about 300 hours a year; half of that time for scheduled maintenance.

By comparison, Deaudelin said, on average the 27 other Environment Canada radar stations are working 97 per cent of the time.

Despite these details, Goodale said the government should release specifics of when radar has gone down and why.

“It’s one thing for this government to say we have this great system, don’t worry about it," he said. "But the public needs to be able to do a reality check on all of those bold claims.”

Aging radar network to be replaced

WEA Sask Storm Chasing 20120704

According to a 2012 study, Saskatchewan averages 18 tornadoes a year. This tornado touched down in 2012 southwest of Moose Jaw, Sask. (Mark Robinson/Canadian Press)

In 1998, Environment Canada began installing its new Doppler radar system, and Bethune's was the first one opened.

Johnson said in his view the equipment is past its prime.

“The technology is old and it’s outdated and that radar station likely needs to be replaced, and it’s likely already living well past its expected lifespan.”

Deaudelin told CBC that Environment Canada has plans to replace more than half of its aging radar stations as part of a $45-million upgrade.

He couldn’t say if the Bethune radar is on the list.