Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Chasing Storms, Tracking Tornadoes with GEO 299
The HWS Update
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Chasing Storms, Tracking Tornadoes with GEO 299

As severe storms and tornadoes swept over parts of the Midwest and Plains states this spring, the Geoscience 299 meteorology field course was predicting their locations, tracking their evolution and documenting their devastating impact.

“Weather, especially severe weather like we saw, is a very dynamic and rapidly changing thing. This made us learn how to think quickly on our feet and make swift decisions as we went based on how storms were evolving in order to be in the right place at the right time as well as remain safe,” says Darby Johnson ’19, who majored in geoscience, minored in environmental studies and will be pursuing her master’s at Ohio University this fall, studying supercells and tornadoes.

The class witnessed 11 tornadoes during the 12-day journey through 12 states and more than 6,100 miles — an experience both “meteorologically and logistically intense,” says Associate Professor of Geoscience Nick Metz.

“Each morning we have to plan where we’re going to be staying that night, as well as the next,” says Metz. “You’re at the whim of nature — you have to be in the right place, and students did an amazing job putting us in the right spots so we could see some amazing weather.”

Metz and Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird led the course, with assistance from alums Caitlin Crossett ’15 and Peyton Capute ’18, who participated in previous iterations of the course and are now pursuing their doctorates in atmospheric science. As in previous years, training began on campus in late May, to familiarize students with the meteorological conditions that support supercell thunderstorm development, the approach and information used to forecast severe thunderstorms, and procedures for collecting observations, as well navigation and safety procedures.

“There’s nothing like learning when you can see something in person, and living in a world with the technology we have, with cell phones with unlimited data plans, it’s just going to make these types of experiences more enriching as the technology continues to improve,” says Metz. “These storms are powerful and dangerous, so we spent a lot of time talking about doing this right and safely. Having this amazing data and technology at your fingertips allows for more refined and safe decisions.”

On the road, student duties included daily weather briefings and continual in-depth forecasting during chases, which informed decisions around which storms to pursue and where to be in order to observe storms safely.

“There is a term, mesoscale, which we use to describe weather events which occur over short time frames and over small areas,” explains Ian Beckley ’20, a geoscience major and English minor. “Forecasting at this level is more difficult, as we are generally more prepared to forecast large scale weather patterns. When the National Weather Service puts out severe weather advisories, they traditionally only narrow things down to the at-risk counties. In fact, often large swaths of the country will be under advisory at the same time, so in the end the final decision on where to chase is up to us.”

In Kansas, on the third day on the road, “we were in a bind on whether to stick with what appeared to be a possibly tame storm or to re-route to get along the backside of a larger, better developed storm,” Beckley says.

Ultimately deciding to stay put, the group found a small ridge with a good view of “a merging complex of storms,” Metz says. “The way they merged together was unlike anything I’d ever seen.”

“As the storm came closer it strengthened and began to ‘put down’ tornado after tornado,” Beckley says. “Some were skinny, others ropey, two at once, a new two with a rope connecting them, one large with multiple vortices within, and then one monster which tore by us.”

The power of that particular storm razed a nearby farm. “These storms are absolutely awe-inspiring, but they are also incredibly dangerous and can destroy livelihoods in a matter of seconds. It is something we often forget when we study these things in classrooms,” says Johnson.

“The family got out, and was parked nearby us. We watched the tornado, they watched their livelihood ruined,” says Beckley. “That was certainly a sobering experience for myself, and I think the group as a whole.”

Support for this year’s GEO 299 field course, and for associated student fees, came from a Department of Geoscience fund created in honor of Professor Emeritus of Geoscience D. Brooks McKinney, who retired in 2018.

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.