Meteorologists rely on radar to forecast and warn you of dangerous weather.
But about a month ago during a severe storm outbreak, the radar in Minot failed — and what you saw on your phone and your TV screens wasn’t accurately depicting the danger.
“We have to keep reiterating, ‘Don’t let this take you by surprise. It looks pretty harmless on the radar right now, but you have some intense severe weather coming your way,'” says Meteorologist Dave Holder, describing the way he covered severe weather that rolled through North Dakota on July 7th, a night when Minot’s radar failed. Wind was shredding through businesses and homes all while showing what looked like rain showers on the radar.
“It was tough to communicate in our northern counties with our viewers, because if we’re flying blind, they’re pretty much blind as well,” Holder says.
“Looking at the radar data, you may not have thought it was such a bad storm,” explains John Paul Martin, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service.
And it isn’t just meteorologists who become blind with lack of radar; it’s also first responders.
“It can be concerning, for sure. It does limit the coverage just a little bit,” says Jennifer Wiechmann, the Emergency Manager for Ward County. She makes sure the county is prepared for severe storms by opening storm shelters.
Ward County is just one area that has limited coverage when the radar fails. Tens of thousands of people in north central North Dakota are impacted by the loss.
Besides routine outages for maintenance, the Minot radar was down due to failing equipment for over 18 days between June and July — the peak of severe weather season.
Even though the radars have been outfitted with the latest technology, they’ve been failing on a regular basis because of their older infrastructure.
“We have a system that is now 35 years old,” says Martin. “Parts are now 35 years old. And of course, if you own anything that’s 35 years old, parts start to break.”
The Minot radar is maintained by the Air Force Base and funded by the Department of Defense.
Staff Sargent Kacy Marker is the radar technician who repairs the Minot radar. She says the latest Minot outage all started with an oil leak. “The motor wore out, it started leaking which caused the motor to completely break and when the motor broke it caused a short which broke the power supply that runs the motor,” Marker says.
This fix took two weeks due to waiting for parts to be shipped.
And we’re not the only area in the country dealing with radar issues. There are countless across the country. The most recent notable outage was January of 2017 in Georgia. Three radars sites went down during a tornado outbreak. Meteorologists felt blind while warning for life threatening weather.
“From what I’ve seen of the Minot radar it’s a fairly reliable radar,” Marker says.
Indeed, the Minot radar has met government standards most years — but not every year.
The government says radar should be up and running 96 percent of the time or more. In 2017, Minot’s radar had a rate of 89 percent — and this year, the availability rate is only at 87 percent. That’s including the recent outages of over two weeks.
The KX Storm Team wrote a letter to Senator John Hoeven, Senator Kevin Cramer, and Representative Kelly Armstrong, urging them to look into our aging radar system and make sure they have the proper funding. The letter reads as follows:
“We, as a dedicated team of meteorologists covering the western two-thirds of North Dakota, would like to bring to your attention our grave concerns about the condition of the KMBX radar site. Our forecasts play a vital role for the citizens of North Dakota in their personal and professional lives. We pride ourselves in providing accurate and prompt weather forecasts as well as real-time hazard updates 24-hours a day and seven days a week. Our timely information has proven to save many North Dakotan’s from danger over the years. Public safety is our number one priority, which is why we are contacting you.
The KMBX radar site, maintained by the Department of Defense, has been out of commission during the height of severe weather numerous times over the years. This radar not only serves the National Weather Service but also local media, and all of the citizens of North Dakota through radar apps. It was recently down during a severe weather outbreak the night of July 7th and into the early morning hours of July 8th. Our team struggled to see inside dangerous storms that were devastating buildings like the Cenex Fertilizer Plant that was leveled in Anamoose. This isn’t the first time we have had this issue. The KMBX radar has been down during snowstorms giving citizens a false sense of security to get out on the roadways. We refer to low radar coverage areas as “radar holes”. We’ve seen the hampered ability of a different “radar hole” most recently in July of 2018. Poor radar coverage in Watford City didn’t allow forecasters the ability to see low enough inside of a storm to detect a tornado ripping through an RV park. Tragically, a 1-week-old baby died that day. The weather community is still haunted by that event. We are grateful for the new radar in that area but also want to address the ongoing “radar hole” in north central North Dakota where the KMBX radar routinely goes out for weeks at a time. Tens of thousands of North Dakotans are in an unnecessary “radar hole” due to constantly failing and aging equipment.
We are asking for you to contact Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and work with the National Weather Service, to address the funding for radar replacements. Our current radar system is over 30-years old and tens of thousands of North Dakotans don’t have proper radar coverage because of their constant failures. We fear another July 2018 incident is imminent if this issue isn’t addressed.
Chief Meteorologist Tom Schrader, Meteorologist Amber Wheeler, Meteorologist Dave Holder, Meteorologist Robert Suhr, News Director Tia Streeter, and General Manager Tammy Blumhagen”
We received the following response from Senator John Hoeven:
“We’re checking right now with the Air Force to make sure that the repairs that have been done to the radar site will last, the Air Force does those repairs. If more work is needed, we’ll work to get additional funding from NOAA to do those repairs in the near term while we continue to work on NEXRAD radar over the long term.
Our office has forwarded the concerns regarding NEXRAD outages in North Dakota to NOAA and the Air Force, and we continue working with the administration to ensure reliable radar coverage in our state. To this end, we have advanced two efforts through the Senate Appropriations Committee – the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) to rehabilitate and improve the performance of the existing NEXRAD system, and the Phased Array Radar program to research and develop the next generation of weather radar. Further, we worked with the National Weather Service and NOAA to adjust the angle of the KMBX radar based in Minot to improve coverage for western North Dakota and are discussing this system’s ongoing maintenance issues with the Air Force. We’ve also pressed NOAA to include our state in a report on gaps in NEXRAD coverage, which was required by legislation that Congress passed in 2017. NOAA expects to release this report in the coming weeks.”
Senator Kevin Cramer issued the following response:
“Maintenance for the Minot and Bismarck radars is fully funded, and both are in the process of being upgraded to ensure their effectiveness for the next decade. The Air Force and NOAA relayed to me the radars have been exceeding up-time standards for years now, and they are going through a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), with new upgrades expected to be completed soon. I understand the important role these radars play in providing reliable and accurate information to the people of North Dakota, and I’ll keep fighting to ensure these assets are properly funded and maintained.”