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Storm chasers complete successful May term field course across Great Plains

Eight WKU students traveled across 14 states and witnessed 17 tornado touchdowns during a May term course. Dr. Josh Durkee, who taught the course, took this photograph just east of Sheridan Lake, Colo. Back row (left to right): Sam Roberts, Sarah McCann, Dustin Jordan; middle row (left to right): Brittney Whitehead, T.J. Malone, Kyle Berry, Olivia Payne; front row: Landon Hampton.

During the 2010 three-week May summer term, eight students from WKU’s Meteorology Program set their sights on severe and often tornadic thunderstorms across the Great Plains. What they brought back with them was nothing short of success.

The goal for Dr. Josh Durkee’s inaugural Field Methods in Weather Analysis and Forecasting class at WKU was to be able to accurately predict the precise locations of severe convective storms, and then drive to the threat area of interest in time to verify their forecasts; an extremely difficult and tiring task.  Dr. Durkee, an assistant professor in WKU’s Department of Geography and Geology, was assisted by Dr. Grady Dixon, assistant professor of meteorology and climatology at Mississippi State University.

Each morning the students would analyze atmospheric data and present hand-analyzed weather charts in a discussion about the expected severe weather for the given day, and designating a targeted town to drive to.  Along the way, the students would prepare a mid-day assessment and highlight any changes from the morning discussion.  Dr. Durkee and Dr. Dixon would weigh in on each discussion, the group would come to a consensus, and on they went.

Students in the class were Kyle Berry of Mt. Washington; Dustin Jordan of Seymour, Tenn.; T.J. Malone of Red Bay, Ala.; Landon Hampton of Morgantown; Sarah McCann of Danville; Sam Roberts of Knoxville, Tenn.; Brittney Whitehead of Portland, Tenn.; and Olivia Payne of Owensboro.

In the end, Dr. Durkee and his group traveled across 14 states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas) from May 20 to June 3 and racked up a total of 17 tornado touchdowns (in five states) across the 8,009-mile trek (a distance similar to driving from Bowling Green, Ky., to Anchorage, Alaska, and back).

“Most meteorology students get plenty of forecasting practice in the classroom,” Dr. Durkee said. “However, there is no real sense of pressure or true disappoint if their forecast is wrong. This field course really puts the ball in the student’s court per se, and forces the students to put together their best forecast each time. When you are averaging 667 miles of driving to verify your forecast each day, a wrong forecast can be quite aggravating for everyone involved. The end result from a field course such as this is remarkable improvements in forecast skill, along with a new perspective on the atmosphere and the forecast process.”

Plans for next year’s class trip are under way. In the meantime, you can read their daily blog entries and view more photos from their journey at http://fastforecast.blogspot.com

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

In this photo taken by Dr. Grady Dixon north of Boise City, Okla., near the Colorado border, the tornado in the background is just south of Campo, Colo., in the Comanche National Grassland. Back row (left to right): Dr. Josh Durkee, T.J. Malone, Landon Hampton, Olivia Payne, Sarah McCann; middle row (left to right): Sam Roberts, Brittney Whitehead, Dustin Jordan; front row: Kyle Berry.

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