Students Learn How Experts Study Severe Storms
BURNT HILLS – Students at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School got a chance to check out some of the latest devices used by meteorologists to study severe storms.
Doppler-on-Wheels, one of only three mounted Doppler Radar units in the country, was on display at the high school Friday, March 6. Hobart and William Smith Colleges Associate Professor, Neil Laird, says the Doppler-on-Wheels, or DOW, gives scientists a chance to go where the storm is; unlike the radars available through the National Weather Service, which are stationary. He says this traveling DOW helps scientists better understand severe weather.
“Severe weather doesn’t always happen where a radar is positioned, so the Doppler-on-Wheels are able to go to where these storms are,” said Laird. “It’s also what we call a very high-resolution radar, so it’s able to see great details about a storm.”
In fact, the details the DOW is able to pick up are so great, that one of the radars caught what is believed to be the first recorded observation of the inside of a 300-MPH tornado.
The high-tech radar system is on loan through a grant from the National Science Foundation. Students and professors at Hobart and William Smith Colleges are learning how to use and operate the radar to collect weather data. As an extension of that, Hobart and William Smith, along with some severe weather experts from the Center of Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado, take the DOW to local communities for educational outreach.
“We’ve been to a variety of different science museums and schools, mostly in western New York,” said Laird. “We decided to stop at Burnt Hills for two reasons. The first is I am an alum and I graduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake in 1986.”
The second reason was that the group was on its way to the Northeastern Storm Conference (NESC) which took place Saturday, March 6 in Saratoga Springs. The NESC is a three-day event where hundreds of attendees, including students and faculty from over a dozen schools, professional meteorologists from the National Weather Service, television stations and the private sector, discuss atmospheric science.
“The participants of the conference [were] able to see the Doppler-on-Wheels,” said Laird. “The National Science Foundation puts an emphasis on education, in addition to research and things like that, but they like to fund educational opportunities also. We’re very fortunate to have gotten this grant from them and be able to provide these opportunities to a variety of people.”
BH-BL students seemed to be impressed by the DOW, which some may recognize from the popular television show, “Storm Chasers.” The $1.5 million truck weighs close to 26,000 pounds, sits two to three researchers and fits eight computer screens in the cockpit. The large satellite on the outside of the truck can extend 55 feet above the truck bed, allowing the radar to see weather patterns and occasions at a more in-depth level. Students were able to tour both the outside and inside of the DOW and learn about its antenna, footings, telescoping instrument tower and the radar data displays.
Aside from the DOW, the educators also brought a tornado pod -- portable surface stations that can withstand extreme winds and have been used in many severe-weather field projects, such as VORTEX2. Students also learned about the mobile weather balloon system researchers use, which is essentially a helium-filled balloon with rawinsonde - an instrument to collect data during flight and communication with the receiving station.