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Weather Service takes steps to improve North Dakota radar coverage after deadly storm

BISMARCK—The National Weather Service is taking steps to improve weather radar coverage for western North Dakota after a deadly tornado in Watford City raised awareness of gaps in coverage.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has committed to studying whether the Minot radar system can be adjusted to improve coverage in western North Dakota, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Thursday.

If the Doppler radar near Minot is adjusted, it would detect storms forming 4,000 feet above ground in Watford City. Currently, the radar system can detect storms in Watford City that are forming at least 10,000 feet above ground.

The improved radar coverage would benefit north central and northwest North Dakota, said John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

An environmental study is necessary before the radar can be adjusted, Martin said. The improved coverage could be in place as early as spring, he said.

"Our hope would be for the next severe weather season, we're ready to go," Martin said.

Also, Hoeven announced Thursday that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will include western North Dakota in its study of gaps in the agency's Doppler radar coverage.

"There are other areas where there's still some gaps," Hoeven said in an interview. "We have to find out how to get them covered."

Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County emergency manager, pushed for improved weather radar coverage after the July 10 tornado in a Watford City RV park that killed a week-old baby and injured more than two dozen.

Jappe urged state and federal officials to improve weather radar coverage for Watford City, which is 140 to 180 miles away from the closest Doppler radar.

"I hope we get it done before next tornado season," Jappe said Thursday.

During the July 10 storm, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning that indicated a tornado was possible. The agency did not issue a tornado warning.

North Dakota meteorologists have said better radar coverage may not have changed the outcome, as the tornado developed quickly and was low to the ground.

"It was kind of a freak storm, but we've got to get the best warning system we can in place," said Hoeven, who met with McKenzie County first responders earlier this month.

The Doppler radar near Minot, which is east of the Minot Air Force Base at Deering, is a good candidate for being adjusted because the terrain is fairly flat, Martin said. The adjustment would involve installing new software, he said.

"The forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Bismarck will benefit tremendously," Martin said.

The Doppler at the Bismarck airport would likely not be a good candidate for the same adjustment because the terrain is more hilly, Martin said.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service also is researching advancing the radar technology, Hoeven said.

"The next step is to figure out how we move this technology to the next generation," Hoeven said.

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