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Riders on the storm

MU group takes storm chasing to the next level

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  • Story by Lisa Bruce
  • Published: July 30, 2008
Storm cloud

The MU Storm Chase Team documented a supercell storm that produced a tornado in Hill City, Kan. on June 9, 2005. Photo courtesy of Taylor Trogdon.

Awe-inspiring. Invigorating. Terrifying. Fascinating. All of these words inevitably get used in conversations with members of the MU Storm Chase Team. 

“I can’t remember a time when I was really ever afraid of a storm. It was always a fascination, and [I was] always a ‘standing by the window’ kind of kid,” says Derrick Ray, a senior in atmospheric science and co-chair of the MU Storm Chase Team.

The team formed in 1999 as part of the MU Atmospheric Science Club. Up until this past spring, members only collected photos and video in the field. In March, the team took its field observations to a new level with the acquisition of weather-recording devices that can be mounted magnetically to the tops of chase cars. The College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; the Department of Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences; and the Atmospheric Science Club purchased the monitoring units for the team.

“We want to get the observations from the storm itself, and when your nearest observation station is one to 10 miles away, that presents a problem,” Ray says.

With the new units, students will be able to gather information such as wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, rainfall and other data from two points under the storm. The storm chasers plan to use the equipment to develop case studies and present their findings at meteorology conferences. By combining this information with data captured in the laboratory from radar, satellite and other technology, the students hope to learn more about storms — supercells in particular.

Power and simplicity

Supercells represent the most severe type of thunderstorm. They can produce tornadoes, damaging winds, floods and hail. Supercells also exhibit the most predictable behavior of all thunderstorms: The northern edge produces heavy rains and hail, the southeast portion of the cell pulls in the warm air that fuels the storm, and the southwest corner tends to develop tornadoes.

“Winds are produced by differences in pressure, and they move toward the lower pressure,” Ray says. Supercells typically have a strong rotation and upward wind currents. “It’s a simple concept with amazingly destructive results — or can be. That’s part of the reason that it’s just so awe-inspiring, because a simple breeze on one day, if the conditions are right, could be wrapped up in a closed area of circulation and could become a tornado.”

The chase process

Student storm chasers

Members of the MU Storm Chase Team Ben Tracy, Chris Brame, Derrick Ray, Nick Kelly, Stuart Miller and Kristin Collins attach a PVC pipe structure to a chase car. The new equipment includes instruments for recording wind speed and direction, rainfall, temperature, barometric pressure and other information. Photo courtesy of Taylor Trogdon.

A base team monitors satellite and radar data and does short-term forecasting in the Weather Visualization Lab in the basement of the Agriculture Building. Ray leads this group and maintains phone communication with the chase teams.

Taylor Trogdon, a senior in atmospheric science and Ray’s co-chair, leads the chase team. One to three cars, each carrying four team members, might go to an area where severe weather has been forecasted.

Don’t try this at home

Members of the MU Storm Chase Team go through training to ensure that they’re ready to safely follow storms in the field. Trogdon says that, since joining the team four years ago, he definitely has seen an increase in the number of amateur chasers swarming around the edges of a storm cell.

“We call that chaser convergence, and we try to avoid it as much as possible,” Ray says.

The team wanted to bring the academic and research side of storm chasing into its activities to set it apart from storm chasers simply out to see a big storm or watch a tornado. However, a passion for science doesn’t take away the excitement of storm chasing.

“When you can drive right along beside [a tornado] and just watch it the whole way — hopefully it’s just passing through some fields and kicking up some dirt, maybe pulling up some corn — it’s an incredible experience,” Ray says. “It really kind of sets how small we are and how we really can’t stand up to the forces of Mother Nature.”

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentBeyond CampusScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012