Purdue students in an earth, atmospheric and planetary science class recently returned from a week traveling across the plains region in search of tornadoes.
Six undergrad students, along with some graduate students and professors, were on the road for much of the week, not staying anyplace longer than a night, according to Allison LaFleur, a doctoral student in the College of Science.
LaFleur said the group started heading to Colorado. From there they traveled to Kansas, then down to Oklahoma and back to Kansas. From Kansas they went to Illinois, then back to Purdue. LaFleur said it was convenient they spent the last day in Illinois since they were only a few hours from Purdue.
Though LaFleur says she no longer gets scared while storm chasing, she said it can be worrying at first for many who haven’t been so close to storms.
“The first couple times you do it, it can get stressful, especially if there’s moments where it’s like, ‘OK, we need to move now,’” she said. “Because while we’re safe at this moment, in five minutes, we shouldn’t be here.”
Dan Dawson, a professor who went on the trip, said a tornado is often the least dangerous part of storm chasing, since it’s typically in sight. The more worrisome aspects are other people on the road, flooded areas and lack of lighting.
According to LaFleur, the group doesn’t chase storms in cities due to the high traffic and reduced visibility because of the buildings.
The team saw three tornadoes during the trip, according to LaFleur. They were able to observe one tornado for a longer period of time.
“Sometimes you see one, but you have to keep moving,” LaFleur said. But in this case, “we were in a spot where we could just stand there and watch it.”
However, not everything went so smoothly. The generator for the radar broke within the first few days of the trip, LaFleur said.
The team used other instruments such as weather balloons and collaborated with a larger field project called TORUS.
The class has been taught every year since 2016. Dawson said he had been looking forward to the trip all year.
“I love (the) look on students’ faces when they see some interesting storm structure,” Dawson said, “and then they can connect that with what they’ve learned in class.”
Lauren Warner, a senior in the College of Science, said the class was not only enjoyable, but a good learning experience.
“This class helped me visualize what I had been learning in classes over the past years,” Warner said via email. “The puzzle pieces really started to connect when I was out in the field experiencing what I was being taught.”
LaFluer said Robin Tanamachi, another professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, will likely conduct more field research in the upcoming weeks.