Eyes on the Storm
Students get close-up views of tornadoes, careers in meteorology
“I’ve never been that close to a tornado before,” said UNC Asheville sophomore Corey Lea.
“It completely transforms your understanding,” said Junior Bobby Taylor. “It’s a very emotional experience as well. You’re witnessing an event that could be causing destruction to life and property.”
Lea and Taylor were among the eight atmospheric sciences students who took part in Assistant Professor Christopher Godfrey’s Severe Weather Field Experience. They made those comments by phone to a reporter on Monday, May 20, attracting media attention after chasing and witnessing many tornadoes up close in Texas and Kansas.
However, they keep a safe distance and stay away from urban environments when the storms approach. As Godfrey explained, the idea is to be close, but not too close, with a good road network and no risk of traffic blocking escape from a tornado’s path. They did have lunch in Moore, Okla. a few hours before the EF-5 strength tornado brought destruction and tragedy to that Oklahoma City suburb, but had left and were safely “one storm to the south” when the twister hit.
On the Radar
On their 12-day field experience, Godfrey and the students monitored radar while traveling in a van, following potential storms to observe severe weather patterns. “Being there and seeing what’s actually going on, and comparing that to the radar right in front of you, can help in the future if you’re in the position of trying to decide whether to issue a warning,” said Thomas Winesett, who graduated from UNC Asheville in May with a Bachelor of Science in Atmospheric Sciences and is entering graduate school at UNC Charlotte with plans for a career as a forecaster at NOAA.
On May 20, they were the ones listening to the sobering live warnings on the radio. “The folks at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. were actually on the weather radio in person saying ‘this is a tornado emergency, take cover,’ and saying exactly where the tornado was,” recalled Godfrey.
At least one UNC Asheville alumna was on the air issuing similar warnings. “It was probably the biggest tornado I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Danielle Dozier ‘07, now a meteorologist for KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City. “It’s just complete devastation, you can’t even recognize neighborhoods anymore.”
On Saturday, just two days before the tornado hit Moore, Dozier had hosted the Severe Weather Field Experience team at her television station where three other alumni also work, and discussed career options. On Tuesday, the importance of her work hit home with greater force.
“Not only was I at the station warning people of the risk of tornadoes, but I then went out in the field and was able to give people the live picture of the tornado coming their way, telling them, ‘get underground now – if you don’t, you won’t survive,” Dozier said. “It’s unnerving having to see all the damage, and there were fatalities, but knowing that I may have helped some people is why I love my job.”
In the Career Field
Discovering that passion for the job is another motivating factor in the field experience. Students met with scientists at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center and also visited Weather Decision Technologies, a private company. They’ve also seen nature at its best and worst.
“The students have gotten different angles of tornadoes,” said Godfrey. “They’ve seen the beautiful tornado touching down in a field without doing any damage and it is meteorologically fascinating. And they’ve also seen what tornadoes can do to people, to lives. When they go on to forecasting positions and broadcast meteorology positions, I think they’ll be able to keep this in mind. They’ll understand what tornadoes can do.”
The Severe Weather Field Experience also has received a good deal of news coverage: