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Meteorology students research March tornado event in eastern Kentucky

For WKU’s five-week June 2012 summer session, Dr. Josh Durkee designed an undergraduate research seminar for meteorology students.

“One of the most important aspects of being an atmospheric scientist is to strive to discover a new understanding of weather and climate events, and to disseminate these findings so that others can have a new perspective or awareness of such events,” said Dr. Durkee, assistant professor of meteorology in WKU’s Department of Geography and Geology. “My aim for the development of this Meteorology Summer Research Seminar was to teach, mentor and offer meteorology students a hands-on, realistic inquiry-based research experience similar to what professional scientists do.”

For this class, the students developed a series of unique, unsolved questions pertaining to various noteworthy meteorological events. In the end, the group chose to address why a portion of eastern Kentucky, a region in the United States that by comparison rarely experiences tornadoes, saw its first tornado on record during the March 2, 2012, severe weather outbreak.

“A common remark that I have heard after the March 2 event was from people who thought they were safe from tornadoes in eastern Kentucky and do not understand how such an event could have unfolded over that region,” Dr. Durkee said. “It is for that reason that the group decided to address questions surrounding the relatively rare tornado events that occurred in eastern Kentucky on that day.”

Overall, the students not only learned about the research topic, but also about research ethics, methods of data collection, new software for data analysis and professional conference presentations.

“It is important for students who choose a science-based career to get involved in research early on,” Dr. Durkee said. “The skills developed in research seminars such as this are multifaceted and will only benefit young scientists as they pursue graduate school or their career paths.”

The WKU Undergraduate Meteorology Research group discovered that the devastating long-track tornadoes in eastern Kentucky on March 2, including the EF-3 tornado that marked Martin County on record as the last county in the state to have experienced a tornado, was largely due to a few factors:

  1. an atmospheric environment that was particularly capable of producing rotating storms across the western and central part of the state;
  2. a considerable increase in wind shear in eastern Kentucky, that was capable of enhancing pre-existing strong rotating storms moving into the area; and
  3. strong storms in central Kentucky that merged together and strengthened along the wind shear gradient in eastern Kentucky.

“As with tornado development in any part of the world, the timing of and the magnitude of the balance of various atmospheric variables must be in place for tornadoes to commence,” Dr. Durkee said. “In the case of March 2, 2012, for eastern Kentucky, that region was particularly situated in a relatively unusually timed and placed atmospheric environment that was capable of producing the strong tornadoes that occurred on that day.”

Students who participated in this research project include Andrew Dockery of Taylorsville; John Logan Thomas of Brentwood, Tenn.; Quentin Walker of Dixon; Ryan Difani of Pocahontas, Ark., Tyler Binkley of Ashland City, Tenn., and Michael Flanigan of Pewee Valley.

The WKU Undergraduate Meteorology Research group will present this research this fall at annual meetings of the National Weather Association in Madison, Wis., and the American Meteorological Society-Severe Local Storms in Nashville, Tenn.

For more about the meteorology program, check out the group’s Facebook page or the WKU Meteorology Blog.

Contact: Josh Durkee, (270) 745-8777.

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