Minnesota bug clouds tripping radar balls?

The Joint Surveillance System radar ball north of Nashwauk, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Here in Northern Minnesota, the deer flies are always bad this time of year. They’re worse this year. Everybody’s talking about deer flies. And they may have even showed up on radar.

But first, some thoughts about radar.

Every day I pass by the Nashwauk Radar Ball, a mysterious white orb overlooking Highway 65 north of town. Part of the fun is wondering what this radar facility is used for. In fact, I wrote a piece that ended up in my book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” about just that.

Knowing what’s in there is less exciting. For instance, once I tell you that the radar ball is part of a national array operated by the Joint Surveillance System of the United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration the mystery slides away, right? The radar ball watches planes, and is backed up by other radar balls just like it. No biggie.

In the 1980s you could take tours of the radar ball, but post-9/11 the only people allowed in are traveling maintenance workers, security guards and, I presume, secret agents. A retired cop friend of mine was hired to guard the place in the early 2000s. He says there’s a desk in there made in prison by G. Gordon Liddy, mastermind of the Watergate break-in that took down the late former president Richard Nixon.

So I guess some mysteries do remain.

But radar generated another kind of mystery last week when a similar National Weather Service radar ball in Duluth detected a large anomaly over the Sax-Zim Bog. You might recall that I write an annual New Year column about my journey to see the Oracle of the Sax-Zim Bog, where her steampunk army of anthropomorphic animals help me understand the future.

Well, fantasy and reality sometimes blur.

An image of the mystery cloud detected over the Sax-Zim Bog on July 20. (IMAGE: NWS, via Duluth News Tribune)

John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune wrote a story last weekend about how the National Weather Service detecting a strange cloud last Thursday. At first it appeared to be a plume of smoke from a wildfire, but no one saw any smoke or fire on the ground. The steam discharge at United Taconite south of Eveleth? No, the cloud was too erratic and didn’t originate from UTac.

From the Myers story:

“We figured it must have been some large amount of bugs,” said Carol Christenson, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist. “What kind, we don’t know.”

The plume never showed up on satellite photos, also contributing to the theory that the source was biological and not meteorological.

Christenson said it’s not uncommon for Doppler radar to pick up large flights of migrating birds or even swarms of mayflies rising out of a river.

“Usually you see bugs early in the morning, or birds, because that’s the time when the radar beam is undergoing ducting; it’s being bent toward the earth more” by atmospheric conditions so it picks up things closer to the ground, she said.

But this happened in the afternoon. The swarm was moving southeast, toward Duluth, but there have been no reports anyone seeing an unusual amount of insects.

“We’re still going with bugs, though,” Christenson said. “Because we can’t think of anything else.”

As you can see, radar produces answers and questions alike. But unless that mysterious biological activity was a bunch of owl farts from the Sax-Zim Bog, my suspicion would be black flies heading to Duluth for the weekend. After all, they’ve already gnawed us to bits further north.

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