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UND's Thunderstorm Experience course prepares students for weather careers by chasing the big ones through ‘tornado Alley'

by Juan Miguel Pedraza, University & Public Affairs writer

Posted on 6/4/2014

UND Storm Chasers: UND students pose in front of a supercell thunderstorm near Hobbs, N.M., on Sunday, May 25. From Left to Right: Zack Hargrove, Cart
UND Storm Chasers: UND students pose in front of a supercell thunderstorm near Hobbs, N.M., on Sunday, May 25. From Left to Right: Zack Hargrove, Cartersville, Ga.; Adam Gill, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Ryan Strankowski, Jamestown, N.D.; Kevin Mahoney, Cannon Falls, Minn.; David Agee, Naperville, Ill.; Molly Aufforth, Bowbells, N.D.; and Jackson Perrault Champlin, Minn.
Matthew Gilmore, associate professor of Atmospheric Sciences in the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, just wrapped up a road trip along with several students, chasing storms and honing their weather forecasting skills as part of a summer semester class, Atmospheric Sciences 499 - Thunderstorm Experience Lab.

In a rented 12-passenger van equipped with computers and monitor displays for geographic tracking of the van and display of real-time weather data from the National Weather Service, they let the clouds tell them where to go.

The summer Thunderstorm Experience Lab class took the group as far south as Texas and New Mexico and back up through Nebraska, Western South Dakota, eastern Wyoming and Montana. They finished the storm-chasing journey on Monday, June 2.

Gilmore, who recently has published as author or co-author several research papers about tornadic thunderstorms. The National Science Foundation has funded Gilmore's tornado research.

Storms are, for sure, fascinating: scary, compelling, beautiful.

But for Gilmore and the five UND summer students on the trip - plus the student driver and an Atmospheric Sciences grad student who's the group's teaching assistant - there was more than "let's-take-a-look" curiosity at work.

"The senior-Level Thunderstorm Experience Lab is a chance for students to apply their forecasting skills and witness first-hand the storms they have been studying in school for the past four years. For many students, severe thunderstorms are what had sparked their original interest in weather," Gilmore said. "We learn something new every time we go out. We continue to be scientifically fascinated by how and why some of these big storm systems generate tornados and some do not."

On a cell phone call from the vicinity of Glasgow, Mont., where the team was positioning for that day's storms, UND Atmospheric Sciences senior Molly Aufforth, a native of Bowbells, N.D., said she was keen to learn more about how to predict and track potentially severe storms.

"I want to get into the operational side of this business either at the National Weather Service or in broadcast meteorology," said Aufforth, who chose UND because it offered, relatively close to home, the major she wanted. "This is a very hands-on experience - I'm trying to learn as much as I can."

Jamestown High School alum and UND Atmospheric Sciences senior Ryan Strankowski is on the trip armed with the knowledge of Skywarn, the National Weather Service's storm spotter training program, that helps him identify and describe the structure of storms such as the ones they're chasing now.

"Learning how to interpret the weather models is an important part of the forecast," said Strankowski, who also aims to get into forecasting.

Gilmore says the field observations are critical to expanding the science of storms and building the next generation of scientific talent, like the five undergraduates on this trip.

"We've seen several supercells on this trip and a tornado near Big Spring, Texas," said Gilmore, explaining a supercell as a thunderstorm that contains a strong rotating updraft - in other words, the parent circulation that gives birth to a tornado. The group blogged about its field experiences on Twitter at

The team comprises Gilmore; the students mentioned; Adam Gill, Colorado Springs, Colo., a senior in atmospheric sciences who is going to grad school with the aim of becoming a researcher; Kevin Mahoney, Cannon Falls, Minn., a senior in atmospheric sciences who wants to go on to a graduate degree and, eventually, forecasting; and Jackson Perrault, Champlin, Minn., a senior who majors in air traffic control with a minor in atmospheric sciences. Driving the van is junior, David Agee, from Naperville, Ill., who is majoring in atmospheric sciences. The teaching assistant, Zack Hargrove, is from Cartersville, Ga., and is an experienced storm chaser working on a graduate degree in atmospheric sciences.

"We've been staying in inexpensive motels, places like Motel 6," said Gilmore. "In addition to their tuition for this course, the students each paid a $1,300 field trip fee which totaled $6,500, and we got a $2,500 grant from our department to buy equipment, such as the computer and monitor for displaying weather data, navigation devices and mapping software. In addition we got a grant from the Office of Instructional Development to install microphones and a sound system in the van so that we could talk to each other over the ambient noise in the vehicle, plus an in-vehicle printer for creating weather maps for hand analysis. The total budget for this trip from all sources is $11,300."

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