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WKU storm chasers travel 7,238 miles in pursuit of severe weather events

Students in the WKU storm chasers course stopped May 24 near Lyons, Kan., for a group photo. From left are Dustin Jordan, Mitchell Gaines, Nathaniel Shearer, Lindsay Rice, Lee Campbell, Kyle Berry, Kate Wilson and Olivia Payne.

During the May 2011 summer term, Dr. Josh Durkee, Dr. Grady Dixon and eight meteorology students traveled more than 7,200 miles across 12 states for another season of forecasting and verifying severe weather across the Great Plains. As with the previous year, the group was quite successful in its mission.

This was the second year that Dr. Durkee’s Field Methods in Weather Analysis and Forecasting class was offered at WKU, which won the 2010 “Creativity and Innovation Award” from the North American Association for Summer Programs.

A wall cloud near Topeka, Kan., on May 21. (Photo by Josh Durkee)

The purpose of the class is to provide meteorology students a capstone learning experience through accurate prediction of the location and timing of severe convective storms, and driving to the threat area in time to verify the forecast. In addition to providing the students with this extraordinary unique learning experience, another goal for the class was to give back to the communities affected by these severe weather events by serving as certified storm spotters. In the event of a funnel cloud, tornado and damaging wind or hail, the group would report these eyewitness accounts so that the communities threatened by these dangerous weather phenomena could seek proper safety measures.

This year’s group included students from three universities as WKU students Kyle Berry of Mount Washington, Mitchell Gaines of Bowling Green, Nathaniel Shearer of Berea, Lee Campbell of Paducah, Dustin Jordan of Seymour, Tenn., and Olivia Payne of Owensboro, were joined by University of South Alabama student Kate Wilson of Bowling Green and California University of Pennsylvania student Lindsay Rice of Delmont, Pa.

Each day the students began by analyzing weather data and presenting their forecasts to the group. Dr. Durkee and Dr. Dixon would mentor the students through the forecast analysis and together, the group would decide on a target area.

“The daily routine of this class is unlike any other,” Dr. Durkee said. “When we wake up, the only concern are the areas with greatest hazardous potential for severe weather and we drive to it. We were never exactly sure when and where we could stop to get a bite to eat. We often ate dinner around 10:30 p.m. We also never knew where we would end up spending the night. It really depends on the severe weather that is taking place at that time.”

Multiple funnels produced an EF-0 tornado near Topeka, Kan., on May 21. (Photo by Josh Durkee)

Overall, Dr. Durkee’s cohort of severe weather forecasters traveled 7,238 miles (a distance nearly 400 miles greater than a roundtrip drive between Bowling Green and Juneau, Alaska) across 12 states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa and Illinois) during May 18-June 1, and witnessed numerous supercell thunderstorms with tornadic circulations. The most notable storm the group encountered included the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., which is the single deadliest tornado on record.

Dr. Durkee is already putting plans together for the course next year.  In the meantime, you can read the daily student blog entries and view more photos from their journey on the WKU Meteorology Blog.

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

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