Posted 9/05/18 (Wed)
By Neal A. Shipman
How good is “good enough” when it comes to the National Weather Service being able to track severe storms in western North Dakota?
Like most people, I assumed that when a person viewed the National Weather Service’s radar, it was showing the exact storm conditions developing in western North Dakota that a person in Bismarck or Minot would see of a storm in their area.
But that assumption is wrong.
While the Minot and Bismarck radars provide complete Doppler radar coverage of what is happening in the atmosphere from the ground up, that is not what is happening in western North Dakota. Western North Dakota’s Doppler radar coverage is provided from a Minot location. Because of the angle of that radar, National Weather Service personnel can only see what is occurring at altitudes of 10,000 feet and above the ground. That means that residents in this part of the state are living in a “radar shadow,” an area that is completely invisible to the National Weather Service.
Even with the “radar shadow” the National Weather Service is still very accurate when it comes to predicting severe storms as they approach western North Dakota. But that 10,000-foot limitation on radar coverage has left people in this part of the state vulnerable when a severe storm happens below the current radar limit of 10,000 feet.
One such storm happened this past July when an EF2 tornado touched down in the Prairie View RV Park that resulted in one infant being killed, dozens of others injured and hundreds of trailers being destroyed or damaged. While the National Weather Service did issue a severe weather warning that evening, the radar never detected the tornado.
Considering the population growth that this region of the state has seen, as well as the billions of dollars of oil field infrastructure, western North Dakota deserves better radar coverage than it currently has.
The good news is that changes to the Minot radar system could be coming within the next year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has agreed to move forward with a study to determine whether the angle of the Minot radar can be lowered. If it can, the radar would be able to track storms that are 4,000 feet above the ground and higher.
In the case of the July 10 tornado, the question is would that improved radar alignment have detected the tornado developing and provided enough warning time that the residents of the park could have gotten out of harm’s way. The National Weather Service says that since the tornado formed from the ground up, it still would have been undetectable. There are those who would argue that fact with the weather officials.
But what everyone is in agreement on is that it is time to improve the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar coverage in western North Dakota. While it would be nice for the weather service’s personnel to be able to see western North Dakota completely, it will be a great leap forward by having that radar coverage drop from 10,000 feet above the ground to 4,000 feet.