UPDATE, 8:45 p.m. Monday, May 20: The UNC Asheville team is all safe and accounted for. Assistant Professor Christopher Godfrey reported Monday evening that they were "one storm to the South" of the tornado that caused such terrible tragedy in Moore, Okla. Godfrey says tornadoes cannot be observed safely in an urban environment, and that the Severe Weather Field Experience Team stays in open areas so they can always keep a safe distance from tornadoes.
Tracking a storm, getting pelted with hail and then having a close-up view of a tornado certainly was exciting for the eight students taking part in Assistant Professor Christopher Godfrey's Severe Weather Field Experience. So is getting a close-up look at the variety of careers in meteorology.
The field experience team observed and photographed their first tornado on Wednesday, May 16 – one that caused damage to buildings in Millsap, Texas, a few miles north of the twister near Granbury that killed six people – and then observed four more tornadoes a few days later in Kansas. Godfrey, along with his friend and navigator Stephen Hudson, an atmospheric scientist who works for the Norwegian Polar Institute, tracked the storms by radar as they drove in a van with the students, trying to stay close, but for safety's sake, not too close.
Thomas Winesett, who graduated 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, says it was valuable experience. "Working with the weather service, you're the person issuing the tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings," says Winesett. "So 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."
Godfrey agrees that the storm-chasing aspect of the field experience is important so students can tie the concepts they learn in class to what they're seeing in the atmosphere. But career development is the crux of the course, and can be exciting too. Students met with scientists at NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, visited Weather Decision Technologies, a private company, and met with UNC Asheville alumni working in the meteorology and news departments at KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City.
"I feel like I've been learning the whole time," said rising junior Katy Hudson (no relation to navigator Stephen Hudson). "It's been really exciting to see the many options that you have with an atmospheric sciences degree ... and a really cool opportunity to see how the atmosphere works first hand, other than in diagrams and in theory that we learn in class. It connected a lot of dots for me, and I'll definitely be able to apply it to what I'll learn in the fall in thermodynamics."
You can see Twitter feeds from the field experience team by searching #SWFex. Godfrey is also keeping everyone updated with an online blog, and student team member Massey Bartolini also is maintaining a blog.