Ready for the Storm

After their years of intense study and rigorous training in Valpo’s meteorology department, alumni Elizabeth Thompson ’10 and Gavin Roy ’10 were well prepared when they boarded a research vessel bound for the Indian Ocean.

In the summer of 2011, Elizabeth Thompson ’10 and Gavin Roy ’10 accepted an opportunity to join an expedition to the Indian Ocean to study a unique and important weather phenomenon. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Energy, the project, called DYNAMO, brought together hundreds of faculty members and graduate students from 15 institutions in six countries to study the Madden-Julian Oscillation.

“It’s a climate phenomenon much like El Niño,” says Elizabeth. “It occurs in the equatorial Indian and West Pacific Oceans, and we’ve learned during the past 30 years that it is crucial for determining weather around the globe.”

After graduating from Valpo, both Elizabeth and Gavin attended Colorado State University, which houses one of the premier meteorology graduate programs in the world — and is home to many Valpo alumni (“It’s amazing how many former Valpo students are out here,” Gavin says).

It was through their graduate work that they learned about DYNAMO, but it was at Valpo where they learned the fundamentals — like launching weather balloons — that earned them the opportunity.

Gavin launched his first weather balloon in the parking lot of the Gellersen Center. “My professors at Valpo, especially Bart [Wolf] and Teresa [Bals-Elsholz], had really taught us to use the instruments and all of the science behind it.”

The balloons, which carry instruments into the clouds to measure a number of atmospheric variables, are a significant part of meteorological research and one of the many hands-on projects that train Valpo students for scientific inquiry.

“When you release weather balloons, you’re trying to obtain observations from the upper air,” says Gavin. “You’re attempting to measure conditions you can’t measure when you’re standing on the earth, trying to detect deviations in moisture and temperature.”

Gavin’s assignment on the DYNAMO project was to launch weather balloons on an island near the Diego Garcia Atoll — a large coral reef off the coast of Tanzania. “The island is strictly a military base,” Gavin explains. “We flew in on a military jet from Singapore after receiving clearance to launch balloons on the island. The military had never allowed civilians on the island.”

For eight hours a day, Gavin launched balloons every four hours and monitored the data the balloons transmitted. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was stationed on a large research vessel not far from the island. Her job was to monitor weather radar — another skill she acquired at Valpo — as atmospheric events occurred around them. “We positioned ourselves right on the equator and waited for something to move past us,” she says.

Scientists believe that the Madden-Julian Oscillation — like El Niño — can cause weather patterns around the world, such as monsoons in India and hurricanes on the east coast of the United States. So DYNAMO attempted to collect data on these storms as they formed to help build global climate models that could potentially predict where severe weather could break out around the globe.

In order to maintain the data’s consistency, the crew tried to keep the ship stationary for the six weeks they were at sea, which, Elizabeth says, created a number of challenges. First, the severe weather caused by the Madden-Julian Oscillation — like rainstorms and tropical cyclones — made the sea rough. Crew members worked around the clock to maintain their position and to ensure the scientists on board could gather consistent data.

In addition, remaining stationary for that length of time made the ship vulnerable to pirates who are known to seize ships and take hostages in the area in hopes of collecting a hefty ransom. Lookouts were stationed on the ship’s bridge 24 hours a day to watch for pirate activity.

“The United States government wouldn’t allow us to go past a certain longitude because of pirates off the east coast of Africa,” Elizabeth says. “There were some significant safety and logistical complications to this project. We were extremely lucky that nothing happened.”

By the time their stint at sea concluded, Gavin and Elizabeth had collected a long-term, continuous data set of what the storms looked like. They hope this data will help scientists better understand the physics of the weather patterns and shed light on how the Madden-Julian Oscillation functions.

In addition to the valuable scientific data, the experience also taught both of them some important lessons about the dedication and perseverance necessary to have a career studying weather patterns.

For Gavin the experience solidified not only his love of the science, but the value of international travel and cultural immersion. In the summers, Gavin travels to Mexico, where he uses the Spanish language skills he developed as a Spanish minor at Valpo to teach courses to graduate students in Mexico City.

And Elizabeth is only more confident of her choice to pursue a career in research. “It was like a big social experiment,” she says. “When I was at Valpo, I was a student-athlete. On the swim team, I was used to working with others and being in close quarters, but this was a whole new level of that with oceanographers, engineers, atmospheric scientists, and the captain. We all worked together to get the job done.”

“To conduct field work as a scientist, it takes a certain type of person, and I feel like I was prepared for that at Valpo,” she continues. “I can’t say enough positive things about our meteorology department to reinforce the quality of the education that I received.”

Excerpted from “Ready for the Storm,” a feature story in the spring 2014 issue of VALPO Magazine.

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