As part of the Colleges’ Geoscience curriculum, eight students were led by Geoscience faculty Nick Metz and Neil Laird across the Midwest and Central Plains for nearly two weeks chasing severe supercell thunderstorms that had the potential of producing tornadoes.
After a three-day intensive on-campus workshop to prepare students with details about severe storms, storm-chasing simulation scenarios, and field-testing of the HWS mobile weather balloon system, the group hit the road, with a different pair of students navigating each day. Each morning a separate pair was tasked with providing a forecast briefing to the rest of the group on the weather while identifying the best route to take towards locating the day’s most promising severe storms.
After 11 days, they had traveled through 14 states and covered 6,300 miles. Using handheld instruments, instrumented balloons rising from the ground to the upper atmosphere, instrumented kites collecting data in the lower atmosphere, radio-transmitted real-time weather information, and time-lapse photography, they predicted how the atmosphere’s ingredients — moisture, temperature, and wind — would come together to produce storms most afternoons. This rich suite of measurements and data, along with the visual observation of the explosive development of cumulus clouds, allowed the group to witness multiple incredible storms and a tornado while in the field chasing.
“There are so many subtleties and details that went into predicting the development of a storm. At times it’s really almost a more qualitative intuition than a quantitative analysis,” says Jeffery Rizza ’15, “but the most surprising part for me was the amount of precision we really could have while tracking individual supercell storms.”
Caitlin Crossett ’15, working toward her major in geoscience with a concentration in atmospheric science, was excited to chase storms, noting that it is “hard to fathom actually being up close and personal with severe storms until you are out there experiencing all aspects of the chase.”
It was the mystery of the storms — and being able to see the weather and storms develop up close — that enticed Rizza.
“There are still many unknowns in the area of severe weather associated with supercells such as tornadoes and extreme hail,” says Rizza, a physics and environmental studies double major and a geoscience minor. “It’s amazing that thousands of these events occur in the U.S. every year and yet we aren’t completely clear on the processes that produce them.” Meteorologists are still actively researching severe storms and often using computer models to understand them because of the difficulty in collecting data within the violent storms.
This iteration of the Geoscience 299 course is the most recent in a series of geoscience field courses that builds upon classroom theory and laboratory practice. In the past, these courses have included trips to Colorado, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and the Bahamas.