Storm Intercept Team puts meteorology students close to storm center

Photos provided by Adam Stepanek, VUSIT Convective Field Studies

Valpo’s renowned meteorology program annually graduates budding weather experts, but they’ve hardly spent all their time in classrooms.

Earlier this year, the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team (VUSIT) had an up-close look at a series of tornadoes that touched down in northern Illinois, including a deadly funnel cloud that hit the small town of Fairdale, about 100 miles west of Chicago.

The dangerous storm was on the ground for 41 minutes and rated a 4 out of 5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

There’s no way for the team to predict what it will see as it heads into storm areas, but the practice is nothing new at the University, where students have been chasing serious weather since the late 1990s.

“Every storm has its unique characteristics that make it hard to forecast,” says former VUSIT director Russell Danielson ’15. “So every time we track a storm it provides a new challenge for us.

“Being so close to something so powerful is a stunning experience. These storms cause incredible damage and put people’s lives at risk, so the amount of respect we have for these storms is humbling and keeps us out in the field chasing.”

The team, which had 53 members at the end of the 2014–2015 academic year, is made up mostly of meteorology majors. Bart Wolf, Ph.D., professor of geography, oversees its field activities, which include two 11-day summer chases each year. Several smaller outings, called day chases, also keep the VUSIT engaged and learning.

Russell says a four-year team member chases an average of 50 storms before graduating, and Professor Wolf says has been on nearly 100 outings with students.

“The severe storm field courses and day chase trips are fundamentally important,” Professor Wolf says. “They provide concrete ways for students to take the theories they learn in the classroom and apply them to real-world forecasting and logistical challenges the ever-changing atmosphere presents.

“These trips also are a means by which meteorology students can serve communities affected by these storms by providing detailed spotting and verification information.”

For most chases, the team is armed with two computers and CB radios, as well as equipment to track surface conditions. Team leaders monitor the computers for radar images while the remaining members take video and photos. The information is then pooled after the chase to assist younger meteorology majors.

“A big part of storm chasing is learning about severe weather because it is hard to learn about it in a classroom setting,” Russell says. “Students can learn a lot about storm structure and how the dynamics of storms work.”

But VUSIT activities focus on more than the needs of its members. It annually leads severe weather discussions and conducts outreach events to help area schoolchildren and adults learn more about preparing for heavy storms, tornadoes, and other events common to northwest Indiana.

While some may think of meteorology strictly as the domain of network forecasters, Valpo students quickly learn the most important aspect of the field: public service. The National Weather Service works diligently to warn home and business owners of approaching storms or serious weather events to lessen the chances for loss of life.

As Russell and the team learned, the warnings can make all the difference. Much of Fairdale was leveled by the tornado and two women were killed, while 11 other people were injured.

The knowledge gleaned during the chases will accompany Russell, who graduated in May with a degree in meteorology while minoring in math.

“Russell is one of the most talented and organized leaders I’ve observed in the meteorology program at Valpo,” Professor Wolf says. “Not only is he talented academically, but he translates classroom learning into application seamlessly.”

Russell is headed to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to work on a master’s degree this fall and will spend his next two summers as an NWS intern in Albuquerque, N.M.

“Meteorology has always interested me,” says Russell, who hopes to pursue a career with the NWS. “The size of the storms and the storm systems amaze me every time we go chasing.”