Science with a Twist[er]
Follow passion and research into the heart of prairie storm country and get up close and personal with a storm. The nastier, the better
“I’ve been doing this since I cheap cialis online was an undergraduate meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma, Norman,” said Aaron Kennedy, a Rockford, Ill., native and Ph.D. student in atmospheric sciences. “It’s sort of a state pastime in Oklahoma,” he said. “Norman is in the heart of Tornado Alley, which runs from Texas to the Northern Plains and has more tornadoes
than anyplace else in the world.”
Kennedy is one of several graduate students who pursue storms.
“Storms have always interested me,” said Daniel (Dan) Adriaansen, a master’s degree candidate who grew up in Marion, New York. “I went to the State University of New York-Brockport near Rochester to study meteorology. We don’t get a lot of tornadoes there, but as a kid I was into how science works and the weather always intrigued me. I asked ‘why?’ and decided to pursue more knowledge to figure it out. I did that by sticking with atmospheric sciences. It’s a lot of fun.”
Adriaansen is a modeler — a computer modeler, that is. He looks at how observations in nature compare with computer models.
“I had no intention of being a storm chaser until I came to UND and met Aaron,” Adriaansen said. “I had no idea we could do that here. When I thought ‘North Dakota,’ I thought about 20 below and lots of snow. After our first storm-chasing trip — when we didn’t see any big storms — I said, ‘I’m in.’”
The group also includes Jason Naylor, who was raised in the small Pennsylvania farming community of Eighty Four, about an hour south of Pittsburgh.
“I model tornadoes and severe storms,” said Naylor, who’s on track for a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. “Chasing storms seems natural for me now.”
The informal group of storm chasers can be found late at night before a potential chase day — when weather conditions look likely — chatting on the computer to decide if this is the system that’ll generate a nice, fat storm.
“And in the morning, we take a last-minute look at things, make the decision, and load up our cameras, gear, and a laptop tethered to the cell phone, and hit the road,” Adriaansen said. “We’re on the Internet all the time, except if we’re in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal. Then it’s back to your roots. You use your eyes.”
It’s about seeing in real time what the computer models can only generate on the screen, Kennedy said.
“We use our field observations to see how well the model does. It’s an alternate reality, one piece of the model, and for it to work we need inputs from real-world observations,” he explained.
So what’s all the excitement about?
“Well, it’s actually pretty boring for the most part — let’s just say that right up front,” Naylor said. “There’s a lot of driving, a lot of sitting.”
“You have to be prepared to be patient,” Kennedy said. “For example, we recently drove out to the Bismarck area — that’s four hours — because the forecasts were for a major storm system. We ate. Then we sat around. Basically, nothing much happened, and there went 11 hours. Really, we treat these ventures like a road trip. So storms are only half of it. We take lots of pictures, but only half may be storm-related. The rest are of clouds and other weather phenomena.”
Patience definitely is the key virtue.
“I spent six years in Oklahoma getting two degrees, and I only saw two tornadoes,” Kennedy said. “I got to UND in August 2006, and went chasing a big storm in South Dakota that put down more tornadoes in a day than I’d seen in six years in Oklahoma.”
So the chase goes on. That includes skipping classes when necessary to learn in the classroom of nature, Kennedy said. And there’s a public service component.
“When chasing storms we give the local National Weather Service office real-time storm data and provide information about the storm track,” Kennedy said. “We can help the NWS to get the warnings out if they haven’t already.”
The trio was close by when a tornado smashed Northwood, N.D., on August 8, 2007.
“We were about five miles out in the middle of that rainstorm, and there was lightning and thunder all around us,” said Naylor.
“It was very difficult to see because the tornado was rain-wrapped, but we could see it faintly in between lightning flashes. When we enhanced the contrast of the photos we took, we definitely saw the funnel. But we had no idea how bad the storm actually was until we got back to town.”
Gretchen Mullendore, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences, knows firsthand the value of these “field trips.”
“We get lots of valuable data from storm chasers, measurements that actually add up to useful science, even as far as helping us understand climate change. Storm chasing still is relevant today,” even amid all the computer models, said Mullendore, who’s done a road trip or two herself.
Mullendore and Atmospheric Sciences colleague Matthew Gilmore both recently got federal grants to study severe storm systems: Mullendore to research how and how fast air masses move from ground level up to the stratosphere where the ozone layer resides; and Gilmore to dig deep into the computer models of such storms and design models that more accurately represent reality.
Interest in storms encouraged the department to launch an atmospheric sciences course called “Severe and Hazardous Weather.” It is designed to appeal to a broad cross section of students, including those with no science background, Mullendore said.
Basically, atmospheric scientists are striving to provide answers in two broad fields, or big picture areas, Mullendore said.
“The first is to help people predict severe weather better,” she said. “The second is to help us understand climate better, and that includes a deeper understanding of climate change. Ultimately, it’s all intertwined, as climate change is affecting the types, locations, and frequency of severe storms.”
So while most of us seek shelter when the storm sirens go off, these intrepid scientists venture out to witness the potentially deadly spectacle firsthand. The dust boils, the trees shake, the winds howl, and amid all this natural traffic, they find answers.
JUAN PEDRAZA | STAFF WRITER