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Chasing Storms Over Seven States in 10 Days

UNC students in front of a storm they chased in May 2019.

July 11, 2019

For the second year, a class of University of Northern Colorado students started summer by crisscrossing the Midwest in search of storms capable of producing tornadoes. Led by UNC Associate Professors of Meteorology David Lerach, Ph.D., and Wendi Flynn, Ph.D., they spent 12- to 16-hour days diving into the world of weather forecasting and storm chasing.

“It helped remind me why I joined this major in the first place,” said UNC Meteorology junior Sydney Giesen. “We didn’t get to see any tornadoes, but I still learned a lot and enjoyed being able to apply some of the things I have learned in class, which was probably my favorite part.”

Canvassing seven states over 10 days, they also spent time engaged in other activities, such as understanding forecast maps and filing daily weather briefs. One of the most memorable activities involved visiting the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma, where they were given a personal tour of the facility that includes the Norman National Weather Service and national Storm Prediction Center. Students observed research vehicles and mass public weather products being tested as well as met some UNC alumni who were on site working with the national weather in developing and testing new weather forecast and communication products.

Interact with their journey in the custom Google Map below:

Click on the yellow pins to view photos and descriptions of their stops throughout the Midwest. You can also turn their driving route (blue) on and off based on your viewing preference:

“The course was a good representation of what I would expect in my coming career. My favorite part was conversating with Dr. Flynn about weather phenomena and future forecasts prior to and after chases,” said UNC Meteorology sophomore Kristoffer Sorensen. “I took the class because storm chasing is a field within meteorology that I am very interested in, and it taught me how to identify real-life concepts that I learned in class.”

Mother Nature showed promise to the class with storm systems developing around Bismarck, North Dakota. The class drove through the night from Oklahoma and made it in time to view close to 10 storms that produced rotation but no tornadoes.

Students used smartphone apps, GPS satellite feeds and handheld weather instruments to collect data while in the field. Also, everyone was trained as a National Weather Service weather spotter.

David Lerach“The biggest part of this class is getting students active in seeing real applications of what they’re learning in the classroom,” said Lerach (image at right). "When you’re out in the field and witnessing the dynamics of the atmosphere come to life, like the rotation developing on different scales of a storm system, or even the environment that’s forming the storm itself, it really gets the students engaged and is a reminder of why they’re learning the complexities of these topics in other classes.”

The class, “Storm Chasing in the Great Plains,” ESCI 491/591, will be offered again in May 2021 with a limit of 12 students.

Check out the program’s Twitter feed for an archive of their storm-chasing adventures.

Learn more about the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Program at UNC.

—Written by Katie-Leigh Corder.

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