Groundbreaking Atmospheric Science Research – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Groundbreaking Atmospheric Science Research

Through the Undergraduate Summer Research Program, HWS geoscience faculty and students have partnered with colleagues from other institutions to undertake atmospheric science research projects poised to improve understanding of several aspects of weather patterns and storm systems that have not been deeply studied until now.

This summer, nine students collaborated with each other and worked side-by-side with Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird, Assistant Professor of Geoscience Nick Metz and Plymouth State University Professor of Meteorology Eric Hoffman, tackling fundamental questions of weather and climate.

Stationary Fronts

“One of the things that excites me the most about meteorology is that there are so many interesting questions that have yet to be answered,” says Metz, who, with Hoffman, guided Peyton Capute ’18 and Jeremiah Piersante ’18 as they have investigated several characteristics of stationary fronts (atmospheric boundaries that separate relatively static air masses and are often preludes to strong thunderstorms).

Analyzing nine years of surface frontal maps produced by the National Center for Environmental Prediction, they explored when and where these fronts occur east of the Rocky Mountains over North America. Their study will help understand the relationship of stationary fronts to thunderstorm development and flooding and, ideally, improve future forecasting.

“This project is unique, and its implications are vast – from forecasting to emergency management to potentially saving lives,” Metz says.

For Capute and Piersante, these prospects were as exciting as the daily progress of the research itself, “starting from scratch and using our work to actually see results that have real-world impacts,” Capute says.

“Research can be challenging though because no one has ever done what we are doing,” says Piersante. “We have to make decisions based on what we think is the best option; there is no predetermined ‘right way.'”

“Peyton and Jeremiah have done some really great work that will garner a lot of interest in the atmospheric science community. We gave them a difficult task, and they really knocked it out of the park,” says Hoffman, who will remain on campus through the fall semester as a visiting professor, teaching a course in meteorology and continuing research with HWS students.

Lake Effect Snow Bands

Julia Moreland, a rising sophomore meteorology major at Plymouth State, and Lukas Ruddy ’18, who earned a NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship earlier in 2016, are investigating the frequency of long-distance lake-effect snow bands and the atmospheric conditions suitable for their formation.

“Many studies have been done regarding lake-effect snow, but not much is understood about the snow bands that extend beyond the regional snow belts of the Great Lakes region,” Moreland explains. On a number of occasions these long-distance snow bands have impacted areas far removed from the Great Lakes (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts) resulting in unexpected snowfall.

“The fact that this study is brand new is also what makes it so challenging because we have no previous studies to use as guidelines; therefore we were able to design the project ourselves,” says Ruddy, noting that his previous research with Laird has helped prepare him for this uncharted territory.

The project involves formulating criteria to define long-distance bands; developing a case database from 13 winters of radar data; and conducting analyses using different models that provide information on temperature, pressure, wind and other variables. 

“Developing a greater understanding of these events is long overdue and the results will provide information that weather forecasters can immediately put to use,” says Laird.

Snow Fall Totals

Carrie Lang, a rising senior at SUNY Geneseo double-majoring in math and geography and Erin Jones,  a rising sophomore meteorology major at Millersville University – also worked with Laird, investigating the contribution lake-effect snow makes to the annual snowfall totals in the areas around Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario. Together, they used GIS analyses of atmospheric model data to get a better sense of how lake-effect snowfall compares with snowfall amounts from other weather systems passing through the Great Lakes region.

“It is very satisfying to get to see the outcome of all the work that I have been doing,” says Jones. “It is also exciting to know that I am the first person to know what the results are, and that I am the one who gets to share that knowledge with the world.”

For Lang, “one of the most exciting aspects so far for me has been the chance to apply the knowledge I’ve learned in college to a real-life application. I have taken a few GIS classes and it was exciting to be able to use this on a comprehensive research project that I helped design.”

“The project that Erin and Carrie have helped develop and are conducting is truly ground breaking work. It is a very complex problem that atmospheric scientists have struggled with for a long time and to see their results is exciting,” Laird says. “The few atmospheric scientists outside of our group that we have shared some of the early results with have been astounded.”

The Upper Atmosphere and Lake Ontario

Working with Metz, Molly Neureuter ’18 and Michael Sessa, a rising junior meteorology major at Valparaiso University, studied the relationship between the upper atmosphere (i.e., jetstream level) and lake-effect snow around Lake Ontario.

“The development of lake-effect snowstorms has always focused on the atmosphere near the ground and lake surface,” says Metz. “However, several storms that we observed during the NSF-funded Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems (OWLeS) field project in the winter of 2013-2014 really changed that traditional thinking of what parts of the atmosphere can influence lake-effect storms.”

“There is basically no knowledge on this topic yet so we are hopefully going to find some interesting connections which will help make operational forecasters’ lives a bit easier as they would use our results to better forecast lake-effect snow,” says Sessa.

“It is amazing to think that the research we are doing can have a part in helping make winter weather forecasts in the Great Lakes region even more accurate,” says Neureuter.

The HWS Summer Research Program

For nearly 30 years, the HWS Summer Research Program has supported research, pairing undergraduate scientists with faculty research mentors. Thanks to a firsthand understanding of the rigors and joys of research, vital field and laboratory experience, and the guidance of experienced faculty mentors, HWS Summer Research participants receive national recognition and are selected for a variety of competitive programs, including a Rhodes Scholarship, a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a Marshall Scholarship, two consecutive Morris K. Udall scholarships, several NOAA Hollings Scholarships, and many others.

The Summer Research Program also encourages ongoing, multi-institution collaboration. In addition to Hoffman’s time at HWS, Plymouth State Assistant Professor of Meteorology Jason Cordeira spent June and July working with Laird and Metz and serving as a visiting mentor for atmospheric science students, and Ross Lazear of the University at Albany/SUNY Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences visited campus to engage students in the process of communicating science to a broad audience. Additionally, weather forecasters from the National Weather Service office in Binghamton, N.Y., visited HWS to hear from students about their projects and discuss how forecasters currently tackle some of these weather situations when making forecasts.

Not all of the summer research experience is spent at HWS or in the Finger Lakes region. For the past several summers, the HWS atmospheric science research group has also led students on an annual excursion to Plymouth State for an informal symposium and a visit to the Mt. Washington Observatory to learn about and experience first-hand the rapidly changing weather on the highest mountain peak in the Northeast.

The research conducted by students in the Atmospheric Science Research Group during the 2016 HWS Summer Research Program was supported through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and a NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) award, as well as the HWS Provost’s Office.