UND students trekked the Midwest from North Dakota to New Mexico in search of nature’s wondrous fury


Amy Halvorson

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UND students trekked the Midwest from North Dakota to New Mexico in search of nature’s wondrous fury

Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean hunting season is over — not for the students enrolled in the Thunderstorm Experience Lab at the University of North Dakota.

Five students, two teaching assistants and an atmospheric sciences professor recently took their classroom on the road to stalk storms.

“It’s a lot like hunting,” says Matthew Gilmore, UND associate professor in atmospheric sciences, “except in this case we are in pursuit of violent storms with the potential to form tornados. But just like hunting, we have a strategy. There are rules about safety. And we do a lot of waiting. What we hope to bring home after the hunt are photos, compelling storm video and a hands-on learning experience for students.”

The students who embarked on this year’s adventure were Mitch Kern, New Richmond, Wis.; Shawn Wagner, Bottineau, N.D.; Josh Eckl, South Saint Paul, Minn.; Jack Parkin, Aberdeen, S.D.; and Alan Horzewski, Princeton, Wis.

Teaching assistants David Agee, Naperville, Ill. and Kevin Mahoney, Cannon Falls, Minn., pulled double duty as storm chasers and drivers for this year’s hunt May 21-30.

For the second year in a row, the hunt was led by Gilmore, a storm-chasing veteran.

This year, the mobile classroom logged more than 6,000 miles through Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.

“We know statistically speaking where tornado alley is so we head that direction and then we follow the storms in real time. We go wherever the weather takes us,” said Gilmore.

The mobile classroom, complete with a mounted monitor, computer, printer, Wi-Fi and a public-address system (funded in part by the UND Office of Instructional Development) allows real-time mapping of the storm’s position, using satellite and radar imagery. Students also use the on-board printer for analyzing weather maps before storms form.

The field work is enhanced by a sister class back at UND that is led by Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Leon Osborne, who fed the storm chasers an even more detailed weather forecast to help guide them toward the biggest storms — or as Gilmore puts it — “the healthiest storms.”

More ‘thrilling than scary’

The ultimate goal of seeing a tornado was first achieved on May 27, near Canadian, Texas.

“The feeling one gets when following a developing tornado is kind of like a roller coaster ride — more thrilling than scary since we know what we’re doing,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore classified the storm in Canadian as almost the perfect storm to observe as it remained mostly stationery, allowing the class to easily drive around it and inspect it from multiple angles.

“When we saw our first tornado, everyone was so happy and excited,” Gilmore said. “They were high fiving each other; it was like we had just won a football game and we were a team that had never won before.”

“Exhilaration, excitement and pride were all feelings that poured out as we watched that tornado,” Parkin said. “It felt great to get paid with a tornado after working so hard to find one all week.”

“The only thing that really kicks in at that time is the adrenaline of knowing you are currently having a successful chase and knowing that you want to take in every second of what you are seeing,” Wagner added.

“It was quite a sight, seeing the tornado that lasted for around eight minutes, watching it go from new tornado to expanding to .7-miles wide all the way back down to its death,” Horzewski said. “It is certainly one of the most amazing sights in nature.”

According to Gilmore, creator of the storm-chasing course, “the adventure is designed to advance student’s forecasting skills and storm-safety knowledge through experiential learning.”

It is open to non-atmospheric science majors, but participants are required to be CPR and First Aid certified in case they are the first responders to an emergency.

Through this trip, students not only practice forecasting and safety but they get to learn how to make tactical decisions such as quickly figuring out which road will allow a safe navigation around the storm while avoiding dangerous and life-threating conditions. Safety always comes first, according to Gilmore. “The two main rules are: stay calm and don’t distract the driver.”

“The road networks are just as important as the storms,” Horzewski said. “The more paved roads in the area, the better for chasing.”

After returning, students submit their field notes and report on their learning experience.

“This truly hands-on experience was like nothing else I've taken at UND,” Parkin said. “Going out into the country and being an actual storm chaser taught me more than anything in a classroom could.”

“I hope more students will learn about this unique summer class so that they can experience it with us next year,” Gilmore said.

Amy Halvorson University & Public Affairs writer

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