For nearly two weeks this summer, 14 students chased severe supercell thunderstorms down 5,600 miles of highway and dirt roads as part of the HWS Geoscience Department’s summer field-study course. Led by Professor Neil Laird and Associate Professor Nick Metz of the HWS Geoscience department, Plymouth State University Professor of Meteorology Eric Hoffman, and instructor Caitlin Crossett ’15, this year’s GEO 299 course offered students the opportunity to develop and hone skills in predicting, observing, documenting and analyzing these thunderstorms, which hold the potential of producing tornadoes.
After a three-day crash course workshop on severe weather and storm chasing, the faculty and students loaded two vans with equipment and provisions and, with rotating pairs of students navigating each day, departed from Geneva heading southwest into tornado country.
Each morning, a different trio of students briefed the group on the day’s weather and outlined the best route to take toward the most promising severe storms, leading to “the most exciting part of this trip,” for Sam Bartlett ’18: “…the thrill of the chase.”
“Given that weather systems are so dynamic, finding the best place to see the most impressive severe weather was no easy task,” Bartlett explains. “It was the job of the navigators to set the course for the day and monitor the in-car weather radar, but everyone in the van contributed extra eyes and input for the trip…. Some of the most rewarding experiences of the trip were getting to observe the development of supercell thunderstorms after an afternoon of collaboration, knowing we were able to successfully navigate to a great storm.”
In west Texas and New Mexico, they intercepted their first supercell thunderstorm and pursued it as it evolved. Over the next several days, they tracked more storms into Colorado, Kansas and back into Oklahoma and Texas, including a tornadic supercell they chased for nearly five hours near Last Chance, Colo.
Being so close to the storms, Molly Neureuter ’18 was awestruck by their beauty — “the glowing hail shafts, perfect mammatus clouds” and the “uninterrupted views” on the open plains.
Neureurter, who has “taken mainly synoptic meteorology classes at HWS that look at weather events on a large scale,” says that the storm chasing course “was so beneficial because I was able to learn how to forecast and understand weather on a smaller scale in specific locations.”
“One of the highlights for me was watching the looks on students’ faces when they recognized something while observing the storms that they’ve learned about in class, but not seen in real time,” says Crossett, who participated in the storm chasing course in 2014 as a student. She joined the group this year as an instructor after earning her master’s in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and before beginning a Ph.D. program in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Vermont. “I remember this being a huge deal for me when I went on the trip as a student so it was exciting to see the same level of interest and excitement in this year’s students.”
A special edition of This Week in Photos recently featured GEO 299.