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NVU Students, Faculty Chase Storms In Tornado Alley

Story posted October 11, 2022 by the Caledonia Record

Earlier this summer, faculty, staff, and five students from Northern Vermont University-Lyndon resumed the opportunity of a lifetime to chase storms in tornado alley.

Since 2019, Lyndon has participated in the SUNY Oswego Storm Forecasting and Observation Program. The trip was canceled during the summers of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The storm chasing program is designed for students to apply concepts from the classroom to the forecasting and observation of convective storms. Students at Lyndon also receive one college credit toward their atmospheric sciences degree.

Ari Preston, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences (Lyndon), and Jason Kaiser, atmospheric sciences data systems administrator (Lyndon), along with Scott Steiger (SUNY Oswego) and Jake Mullholland (University of North Dakota), served as instructors and drivers during the two-week storm chasing trip. Overall, a total of 14 students (five from Lyndon and nine from SUNY Oswego) witnessed some incredible weather. From May 24 to June 6, students chased storms across eight states: Indiana, Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. The group saw a rain-wrapped landspout tornado, more than a dozen wall clouds, dust devils, several inches of hail accumulation, mammatus clouds, and incredible lightning activity. The first two weeks were spent in the field, forecasting severe weather, observing storm structure, and collecting data. Students were involved in the data collection process, including weather balloon launches to help capture a vertical profile of the atmosphere. Sounding data were publicly shared with local National Weather Service offices to help inform their decision-making. Students also used professional cameras, tripods, and GPS devices to conduct cloud photogrammetry.

“The pictures that students captured can later be analyzed to measure the dimensions of the storms we observed,” Preston said. For the last week of the program, students conducted research projects related to the storms they chased. On down days, students got to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.

According to Preston, a typical chase day looked like the following: the forecast team would lead a weather briefing around 8 a.m. Each van was driven five to six hours to a target area. This would get them to their destination by 3 p.m., providing enough time to launch a weather balloon before the main period of cloud development at 5 p.m. Students would then observe severe storms for the next several hours before losing daylight. After sunset, instructors and students would decide where to stay to put them in the best position to chase again the next day.

Since 1974, the Lyndon campus has provided majors in atmospheric sciences. It will continue to do so in fall 2023 but under the newly unified Vermont State University.

The Lyndon students who took part in this year’s chase spoke well of the experience.

Broadcasting major Teagan Reeves, of Stowe, discussed the importance of experiential learning. “I learned a lot about forecasting severe weather and forecasting concepts/experiences that I never would have gotten in a classroom.”

Luke Morin, of Auburn, Massachusetts, remarked on how he was able to apply concepts from the classroom while storm chasing. “On this trip I learned how to translate what I was seeing in person into what I was seeing on radar which was extremely interesting. Additionally, I got to learn a lot about how to forecast where severe weather would be occurring in the coming days. Learning about something in a textbook and finally putting it into practice was an experience I’ll never forget.” Morin is pursuing multiple concentrations within the atmospheric sciences major, including the graduate school track.

Chase Abbott, from Charlton, Massachusetts, discussed the values of being out in the field. “I enjoyed traveling across many different states and seeing clouds and storms that you just don’t see in the northeast.” Abbott also is pursuing multiple concentrations, including private industry.

Sara Wichrowski, of Berlin, New Jersey, said, “From this experience, one of the most useful skills I learned was how to develop my own forecast and not rely on predictions from sources, such as the Storm Prediction Center, but rather use these sources as a comparison against my forecast.” Wichrowski is pursuing a National Weather Service concentration.

Students in the Lyndon atmospheric sciences program have turned their attention in recent weeks to the Atlantic Hurricane Season and the weather conditions impacting fall foliage.