WILLISTON, N.D. — As construction wraps up on the new Williston airport, crews are installing a radar tower at the facility to better detect severe weather in northwestern North Dakota.
The project will address a gap in radar coverage over that part of the state, which sits far from the two nearest National Weather Service radar towers, in Minot and Glasgow, Mont. The farther away from a radar site, the higher the altitude at which a radar beam can provide detailed weather information.
Williams County Emergency Management Director Mike Smith said existing radar can detect weather only over 9,000 feet above Williston.
“Usually winter weather occurs in the lower portions of the atmosphere, and right now with our radars in Glasgow and Minot, we could be having a heavy snowstorm and it wouldn’t even be visible on the radar,” he said.
The new tower is expected to provide coverage below 3,200 feet within a 50-mile radius around Williston, county spokeswoman Lindsey Harriman said.
The tower costs $1.5 million and is being funded by a Williams County sales tax collected for public safety initiatives. A large white globe known as a radome will protect the radar antenna inside and top the tower at a height of 80 feet, Harriman said.
Although the weather service is not putting up the facility, the agency will be able to access its data. Smith said the data also will be available for the public online. It could be used by ranchers or farmers, as well as to help with cloud seeding.
Crews laid a foundation this week and will continue to work on construction. Smith anticipates the tower will be operational by the end of the year.
The Williston tower follows recent upgrades to the weather service’s Doppler radar system in Minot. The agency lowered the angle that the radar scans across the horizon to provide better coverage in places like Watford City, where a tornado that developed close to the ground last year tore through an RV park and killed a newborn.
The changes to the Minot radar have helped in Williston, as well, according to Smith. People in northwestern North Dakota have talked for several years about getting better radar coverage, and the tornado served as a reminder that they needed to act, he said.
Other radars exist in western North Dakota, in Stanley and Bowman, though they use different technology that cannot distinguish between types of precipitation such as rain or hail, said Todd Hamilton, meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Bismarck office.
“Any additional information we can get will be great,” he said. “Being able to see that in real time would certainly be of great help to us.”
Smith said the radar coincides with upgrades to Williston County’s emergency alert process, including new outdoor sirens and a system through which residents can receive alerts via phone or email.
The new Williston Basin International Airport, where the radar tower is under construction, is slated to open Oct. 10. It will replace Williston's Sloulin Field International Airport, which has struggled to accommodate an increase in travelers amid the region's oil boom.