Stormchasing: ISU geography students canvass five states to study weather

August 11 2006

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Students Hannah Kerns of Roachdale and Brian Cox of Coatesville observe updraft circulation in a rotating hailstorm northeast of Wichita, Kan.
In the movie "Twister," Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton went chasing tornadoes in order to test a new storm tracking instrument and met up with the granddaddy of all F5s - and seemingly all of its grandkids - without ever leaving Oklahoma.

Such is Hollywood.

When students in an Indiana State University field geography class spent the better part of a week traversing parts of five Midwest and Plains states to gain experience tracking storms, they encountered rain, lightning, and pea-sized hail but no catastrophic weather.

Such is the real world.

And that's just fine with the students and their professor, who say the effort still paid off.

"I don't think many people have the opportunity to go out with a computer and some of the best technologies available and try to track severe weather, so it was a great learning experience," said Kevin Baumann, a master's student in geography with a specialization in climatology. "The Great Plains is one of the pre-eminent places in the world for storm development. If you're going to look for severe weather, that's a pretty good place to go."

Baumann, of Charleston, Ill., was among eight students - undergraduates as well as graduate students - who spent time in the classroom learning about factors that influence severe weather and then traveled to Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri to apply in the field what they learned in the classroom.

"We did a crash course in thermodynamics, atmospheric instability and severe thunderstorm climatology and then went into the field with the intention of moving ourselves to where severe weather was most likely to occur and to update that prediction each evening and morning based on the models and the data that we had available," said Greg Bierly, associate professor of geography and director of the ISU Climatology Lab.

Laptop computers let the students to check current Doppler radar images and receive continuous updates from the National Storm Prediction Center as they drove.

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Students (left to right) Michael Glenn of Cloverdale, Allison Lapcheska of Lafayette, Kacie Schwartz of Decatur, Jared Bayler of Paris, Ill., Brian Cox of Coatesville and Kevin Baumann of Charleston, Ill. watch a developing thunderstorm near Wichita, Kan. at right is Greg Bierly, associate professor of geography and director of the ISU Climatology Lab. The storm produced quarter-sized hail and damaging wind.
While there was no red pickup truck with a "Dorothy"-style instrument in the bed as in the movie, the ISU students did have access to some sophisticated computer software.

"One program in particular allowed us to track an individual thunderstorm in terms of how big it was, its movement and direction and if it had rotation involved, which is very often a precursor to tornado development," Baumann said.

Another program let students to see the role warmer temperatures play in fueling the creation of so-called "super cell" thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes.

"If something gets warmed up, it allows you to see how fast it will rise into the atmosphere. The faster something rises, the better chance you have for some of these large thunderstorms to develop, with the potential for hail," Baumann said.

"While we did not intercept a tornadic thunderstorm, as there were none in the region that we were working with, I feel the class was a success in that we did take the theoretical, that which we had to work with from the models and the radar, and were able to intercept and photograph some significant hailstorms in the field," Bierly said.

"Being able to visualize thunderstorms and parts of thunderstorms, and seeing what those look like on radar, and then positioning yourselves within those in the field, that's important in terms of how things work. It's also important to kind of rev up your personal excitement about things, why we study things and why we want to do research," he said.

Baumann has taught as a graduate assistant at Indiana State and as an instructor at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill. Hannah Kerns is a senior from Roachdale majoring in radio/tv/film and geography. Both say the experience will help them in their careers.

"Many people have seen the movie 'Twister,' or other things that kind of glamorize science, but to be able to say 'I've done that' is kind of an eye opener to students and helps say to them, 'Yes, I have some experience with this,'" Baumann said.

"If I'm a broadcast meteorologist and I'm explaining something to people but have never seen it myself, they're not going to have much trust in me," said Kerns. "But I've been out here and I've seen it, and I'm able to forecast it correctly based on what I know, I think people will have a lot more faith in me."

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Contact: Greg Bierly, associate professor of geology and director, Climatology Lab, Indiana State University, (812) 237-4515 or gbierly@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Eight students in a summer field geography class studied thermodynamics and climatology in the classroom and then headed to the Great Plains to plut the knowledge learned in the classroom to work tracking storms.

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