Weather radar – the short and long of it

For as long as there have been farmers, there has been the need to know what the weather will bring- both in the short-term and long-term. One of the most famous founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, is credited as being the first to notice weather patterns and to have the ability to predict what weather certain areas will experience.

Posted 6/13/19

By Melissa Anderson

From the early days of just watching the sky to the modern day tracking of conditions with up to the minute progress, weather plays an integral part in a producer’s ability to grow a successful crop. Thanks to modern technology, that ability to monitor the weather may soon be even better in rural areas like Cavalier County.

An incredibly accurate weather sharing system is located in Langdon in the form of a Mesonet station. This provides updated weather stats every 5 minutes, giving users the most accurate weather information for their area. Siting locations for Mesonet stations attempt to fulfill a list of general requirements for meteorological and agricultural purposes. North Dakota, as well as other landscaped and populated states, are perfect locations for the stations as there is little human influence from suburban areas and relatively flat geography. Because of the majority of acres are utilized for agriculture, there are minimum obstructions that impede wind flow at sites. However, these stations can not predict the weather  to come.

Dr. Aaron Kennedy, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of North Dakota, spends his days using weather monitors to better understand what is going on in the meteorological world including estimating how much rain fell, tracking storms – including hazards like hail and tornadoes, and even identifying fires, migrating birds, etc.

“Radar’s role is to provide data in the very short-term. While planting crops might be mainly reliant on forecasts, radar comes into play by checking the forecast over the next couple of hours. It can also shed light on any quirks in the short-term such as a change in wind direction,” Kennedy explained.

For Cavalier County, there is a downside to being highly rural. The data quality for radar readings decreases the further away you are from a radar station. This is partly because the radar beam spreads out but also because it increases in height. Kennedy explained that in Cavalier County, the closest US radar is in Mayville.

“This means the radar beam is typically 1-2 miles above the ground! This leads to more errors for radar estimated rainfall and makes it tougher to detect hail/tornadoes at the surface,” Kennedy shared.

To improve the quality of radar data, there is really only one option. Kennedy explained that if something called a gap-filling radar could be utilized in the area, it could provide more information near ground level. As much as we’d love to have these type of radars in our area, the reality is radar technology is expensive and difficult to justify in many rural areas. Weather forecast models are dependent on an accurate starting point for the model which basically means the present weather conditions. Given that many of the storm systems coming through the northeast corner of the state have ties to Canada, this would mean installing more observation sites across the region and Canada – once again, not a cheap endeavor.

“There is some hope that unmanned aircraft systems may be able to provide cost effective ways of doing this in the future,” Kennedy shared.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has supported various flight campaigns using unmanned aircraft systems and drones at Oliktok Point, Alaska.  Over the course of the three year study, the drones were used to gather meteorological data as well as climate data to provide a detailed characterization of the lower atmosphere. Alongside a suite of active and passive ground-based sensors and radiosondes, these flight activities demonstrated the ability of such platforms to provide critically needed information on weather.

“In addition to providing new and unique data sets, lessons learned during initial campaigns have assisted in the development of an exciting new community resource,” reported lead researcher Gijs de Boero of the University of Colorado and NOAA.

The drones could provide significantly useful information including watching for incoming rain/storms and, of course, seeing how much rain fell in the area after the event is over. Beyond this, the drones provide information on whether hail or other hazardous weather may be present. The more astute user can also use this data to determine where wind shifts are that could impact application operations.

Recently, the North Dakota National Guard announced that it is partnering with U.S. Northern Command and several other agencies to test a long-range radar at Camp Grafton Training Center. The radar, known as the Arctic “Over-the-Horizon Radar”, will be constructed at Camp Grafton.

“This is an important partnership between NORAD/NORTHCOM, AFRL, and the North Dakota National Guard,” said Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, adjutant general. “It paves the way for testing and research on this critical radar system and also establishes Camp Grafton as a premier research center for future users.”

Assembly of the antennas along Highway 20 has already begun, and the assembly of the antenna array adjacent to Highway 15 in Eddy County is scheduled to begin shortly.  Testing is slated to begin in late June and will last approximately eight weeks. By mid-August the testing will be complete and the antennas will be removed by the first week of September.