Storm chasing trip offers firsthand experience

After eight stormless days, tensions run high among Dave Carroll’s students and a dull stupor fills the classroom. It is not a spell that will break with the end of a 50-minute class period. In this case, the classroom is a minivan and the class is The Great Plains Storm Chase, a summer course that involves 7,000 miles of travel across the country to find and monitor severe storms.

   

The 2009 storm chasers watch a storm move through Decatur, Texas. The 2009 storm chasers watch a storm move through Decatur, Texas.

Suddenly, the silence breaks as the radar reveals a nearby storm system. The students spring to life, moving quickly to operate the extensive weather-monitoring instruments inside the van. Carroll, a geography instructor in the College of Natural Resources, stays at the wheel, obeying the driving directions the students shout to him excitedly as they look at a screen that shows a road map overlaying the radar.

Carroll’s Storm Chase course is an unusual experience, a valuable opportunity for students interested in a career in meteorology. The course gives students hands-on experience operating weather equipment and exposes them to the thrills and frustrations of storm chasing.

   

The 2009 storm chasers logged thousands of miles to find severe weather. The 2009 storm chasers logged thousands of miles to find severe weather.

“The two-to-three week-long trip can be quite a haul,” Carroll said, “so it is important that students applying for the storm chase have the ability to be civil to others during high-stress periods.”

However, the thrill of witnessing a large storm event more than counteracts the boredom of a long lull. Through such intense experiences, students build new friendships as well as stronger skills in forecasting and monitoring weather.

As the course’s popularity has grown, so has the Department of Geography’s interest in creating a major in meteorology. When first proposed during a university-wide call for new program ideas in 2004, the meteorology program was one of the most favorably received of the new ideas. Such a program would be the first of its kind in Virginia. Currently, the state pays for meteorology students to study at Mississippi State University at in-state tuition rates.

Carroll said he anticipates Virginia Tech’s program will be unique for more than its status as Virginia’s only undergraduate degree program in meteorology.

   

The chase team follows severe weather on radar. The chase team follows severe weather on radar.

“Most meteorology programs focus on what we would consider classical meteorology, where you’re looking at the physics of the atmosphere,” Carroll explained. “We’re specializing in the entire GIS [Geoographic Information Systems] process and blending meteorology into that curriculum. It’s almost a dual approach to meteorology.”

Though the program would derive some of its structure from programs at schools such as The Pennsylvania State University and Mississippi State, it would not be modeled on these programs.

Instead, Carroll said it would play to Virginia Tech’s existing strengths, many of which lie in GIS applications. While most other programs look primarily at atmospheric patterns, GIS technology allows students to consider how landforms affect weather patterns.

“We know the surface of the Earth influences what’s going on in the atmosphere, but it’s very difficult to try to model that input into the atmosphere and figure out how it might impact the weather,” Carroll said.

Students who develop skills in this area would leave the meteorology program with an operational degree that enables them to understand the modeling process on a different level and to develop meaningful ways of displaying and using weather data.

   

A tornadic supercell appears over Graham County, Kan., in May 2007. A tornadic supercell appears over Graham County, Kan., in May 2007.

Despite recent budget cuts, the geography department is working to make the meteorology program a reality, strengthening the meteorology concentration as it gets closer to offering a major.

“I’m developing relationships with other departments to come up with a joint venture,” said Bill Carstensen, department head.

The program is still missing several upper-level courses that would allow the degree to meet employment requirements for the National Weather Service, but Carstensen said he expects that the university will offer the degree within the next five years.

Adjunct teaching and cooperation with other departments will provide some of the needed courses. Eventually Carstensen said he hopes to employ two new faculty members. Aside from teaching, the new professors would be required to do research, which would generate grant money, allowing the department to purchase a set of mobile mesonets, portable weather stations, for research.

“This investment would open the doors to expanding research and developing a graduate program,” Carroll said. “The end result will be better forecasting.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lynn Davis at (540) 231-6157.