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John Paul Martin, center, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, talks on Tuesday, July 10, to Lt. Matthew Watkins and Capt. Mike Ficken, left, both of the McKenzie County Sheriff's Department, and McKenzie County Emergency Managers Karolin Jappy and Jerry Samuelson after determining an FE 2 tornado touched down in the early morning hours in Watford City. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

Weather radar coverage for western ND questioned after tornado

BISMARCK—Hours after a devastating tornado ripped through Watford City, McKenzie County's emergency manager began pushing for better weather radar coverage in western North Dakota.

The closest Doppler radars to Watford City are near Minot and Glasgow, Mont., or 140 to 180 miles away.

At that distance, the radars are detecting storms forming at least 10,000 feet above ground, said John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

Emergency manager Karolin Jappe is strongly advocating for a Doppler radar closer to McKenzie County, which leads the state in oil production and is home to massive oil storage tanks and several natural gas processing plants.

"We're the epicenter of the oilfield, and we have so much risk here it's scary," Jappe said.

In the case of Tuesday's storm, which killed a newborn baby and injured more than two dozen, it's unknown whether better radar coverage would have changed the outcome.

But it's an issue state officials plan to look into in the aftermath of the tornado, said Gov. Doug Burgum, who started hearing concerns about weather radar coverage as soon as he arrived to survey the damage Tuesday.

"When the dust is settled and the cleanup has happened and we've taken care of all of the immediate needs, we want to make sure we don't lose sight of lessons learned," Burgum told local officials in a meeting last week. "One way that you prevent this kind of tragedy is to make sure that you've got good warning systems."

Weather warnings

North Dakota has three Doppler radars located in Bismarck, Mayville and near Minot.

Because of the curvature of the earth, the farther away you are from the radar, the higher up in the sky the radar reaches.

At Watford City, the radar cannot detect anything from the ground up to 10,000 feet, Martin said.

In other parts of the state, the radar detection starts even higher. In part of Bowman County in southwest North Dakota, the closest Doppler radar can't detect anything from the ground up to about 16,000 feet, Martin said.

The North Dakota State Water Commission also operates radars at Stanley and Bowman.

Those radars use older technology, but they're another tool that helps the National Weather Service decide when to issue weather advisories, said Chauncy Schultz, science and operations officer for the Weather Service.

During severe weather events, a team of meteorologists analyzes information from various sources, including reports from weather spotters to keep the public informed.

"Everyone here is extremely passionate and dedicated to trying to keep people safe," Schultz said. "There's a lot of tools and science that we use to make the decisions the best we can under pressure and a lot of uncertainties."

On Tuesday, the Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning about an hour before the tornado hit Watford City, Martin said. The warning included a statement that a tornado was possible.

'A different animal'

In many cases, tornadoes form high within a thunderstorm super cell and slowly descend toward the ground, Schultz said.

The thunderstorm on Tuesday, however, was a different, more complex type of storm.

In cases like the storm from Tuesday, the tornado can form near the ground and rapidly build upward, Schultz said.

"It can be less than 10 minutes before the tornado forms," he said.

The Weather Service classified Tuesday's storm as an EF 2 tornado with wind speeds of 127 miles per hour. It was on the ground for 3 minutes, traveling a path that was 0.55 miles long and 400 yards wide.

Weather Service meteorologists plan to study the recent tornado to see what they can learn, Schultz said.

"On a science side of things, there's more to learn about these kind of processes," he said.

The tornado hit Watford City about 12:45 a.m. One eyewitness, Jason Wiler, saw the tornado forming and drove his family out of the Prairie View RV Park and to the nearby Cashwise grocery store.

"The only way I could see it was the lightning. Because it was so much lightning," Wiler said.

Reports from law enforcement and weather spotters are crucial for warning the public about tornadoes, particularly in western North Dakota, but seeing a tornado at night is much more difficult, Martin said.

Meteorologist Daryl Ritchison, interim director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, said he doesn't believe having a radar closer to Watford City would have led to more advanced warning of Tuesday's tornado.

Ritchison said he was watching the storms and was convinced the damage was caused by straight line winds until he heard the on-the-ground reports from the Weather Service.

"It was a unique type of tornado that is very, very difficult to pick up. It's a little bit of a different animal," Ritchison said. "It was just a tornado at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Even though he doesn't think it would have made a difference in this case, Ritchison said, as a meteorologist, he'd like to see another Doppler radar to cover western North Dakota.

"It would be great, but it always costs money," Ritchison said. "If I could pick a magical spot, I would pick somewhere around Sidney, Montana."

During a meeting in Watford City last week, Burgum said he wants to discuss the issue with federal partners to "see if we can make sure every citizen has the opportunity to have all the advanced warning we would have any place else with great radar coverage."

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, former mayor of Watford City, said he and Burgum plan to address the issue with the Western Governors Association, which recently elected Burgum as its vice chairman. Governors of neighboring western states face similar challenges and working together would be a more effective way to begin addressing it with Congress, Sanford said.

Meanwhile, meteorologists are urging people to take severe thunderstorm warnings seriously.

"It's a good reminder that any severe thunderstorm is dangerous and can produce, unfortunately, tragic results," Schultz said.

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