The National Weather Service has lowered its radar beam over Watford City by 3,000 feet, to an altitude of 10,000 feet.
While the change doesn’t get the radar below 10,000 feet — considered key to ensuring adequate early storm warnings — it does provide some additional radar coverage for the community, which was hit by an EF2 tornado in July 2018 without warning.
The tornado killed an infant, injured dozens of others, and displaced hundreds of residents from their homes.
The change involved new software installed on the NEXRAD system at Minot Air Force Base.
The beam cannot get any lower due to terrain and other obstacles interfering with the radar system, according to an NWS study. But it has already provided additional data that led to a storm warning in the northern part of the state on Thursday, Aug. 1.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., was among lawmakers pushing for improvements to the radar system covering the northwestern North Dakota region. A 2017 law Hoeven pushed for required NWS and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to study gaps in its NEXRAD coverage and provide recommendations for addressing them.
“The change in NEXRAD coverage is important for protecting communities in western North Dakota from the threat of severe weather,” said Hoeven. “By scanning a lower altitude, the NWS will be better able to detect severe storms and tornados, giving residents more advanced warning and more opportunity to seek shelter. We appreciate NOAA and NWS staff for working with us to advance a study of the radar gaps around Watford City and making the best possible adjustments.”
McKenzie County Emergency Management Director Karolin Jappe said she was extremely grateful for efforts that Hoeven and other lawmakers made on behalf of Watford City to improve radar coverage.
However, she added, the radar will still be too high for adequate early storm warnings. Many storms begin well below 10,000 feet and will still be missed.
“If you look at the stats, that’s just not going to cut it. Not in this oilfield,” she said. “We have more risks. And we are in a unique area. It’s not completely flat land over here.”
Jappe said she is grateful that the Williston airport is getting a radar system, which will help fill the gap between 3,000 feet and 10,000 feet that is so key to storm warnings in this part of the state.
Preliminary estimates are that the beam will provide coverage below 10,000 feet for about a 100-mile radius, below 6,200 feet for about 75 miles, and below 3,200 feet for about 50 miles.
The public will be able to view the radar maps online, and information from the radar will be transmitted to the National Weather Service in Bismarck to enhance their decisions about storm warnings and forecasting for the region.
The system also complements year-round radar coverage in Bowman and a seasonal radar that operates in Stanley in the summer, as well as NEXRAD radar systems in Minot and Bismarck.
Williams County Emergency Management plans to incorporate data from the new radar system into its existing weather warning initiatives, including the Outdoor Warning Sirens and the ALERT Williams County notification app.
The radar is being installed at the airport by Williams County, with $1.5 million from the 1 percent Public Safety Sales Tax.
It is expected to be finished when the new airport opens, and operational soon thereafter.