Traveling for hours chasing winter storms in the Northeast, a group of Millersville University students – equipped with weather balloons and science sensors – conducted research for a NASA project that aims to improve snow accumulation forecast.
By studying these weather events in great detail, researchers hope to learn more about snow dump bands in storms, which are currently poorly understood and predicted.
The goal is to bolster those predictions, especially when it comes to determining how much snow will fall, said NASA Goddard physics researcher John Yorks.
“Instead of predicting this wide range of 6 to 12 inches, we’re hoping to improve and narrow these ranges down to something like 6 to 8,” said Yorks, the project’s deputy principal investigator.
First, researchers need to gather detailed information about winter storms in the eastern United States, an effort supported by about 100 people, including at least 10 universities, Yorks said.
However, there was originally a lack of coverage in the mid-Atlantic, and Yorks said he knew Millersville University’s meteorology department could fill that void. Yorks, now a Ph.D., is a Millersville alumnus, graduating with an undergraduate degree in meteorology in 2006.
“When I was in Millersville, I had the chance to participate in some research projects as an undergraduate student, and it really opened my eyes to the research aspects of the field of meteorology” , did he declare. “The more things you try, the more you discover what you like.”
Great opportunity for students
According to Todd Sikora, professor of meteorology at Millersville, this was clearly a great opportunity for students to participate in the project – called IMPACTS, Investigation of Microphysics and Precipitation for Atlantic Coast-Threatening Snowstorms.
And 31 students have enrolled, said professor of meteorology Richard Clark, who chairs the university’s department of earth sciences. However, the mild winter this season meant only about half of them were out on the pitch, he said.
Still, students who participated said they were grateful for the experience. This includes Millersville senior Cameron Gonteski, a meteorology student.
“I learn much better in the field than when I sit and listen to a lecture,” she said, relishing the opportunity to participate in a project that could advance forecasts while improving safety. public.
Ryan Argenti, a junior meteorology student, said much the same, being particularly proud that NASA was leading the work.
“The fact that I can say that I helped with research for NASA is incredibly out of the language,” he said.
How Search Works
Typically, this fieldwork meant hours of travel, on short notice, to record storm conditions in northeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and even Connecticut.
On these trips, students attached instruments called radiosondes to helium-filled weather balloons, which they then launched into the sky, tens of thousands of feet high.
Carried by balloons, radiosondes record temperature, humidity and pressure while GPS signals track altitude, wind speed and direction, Clark said.
“It gives us a complete profile of the atmosphere from the ground,” Clark said.
At the same time, NASA pilots would fly two separate planes at different altitudes into and above storm clouds, recording data related to cloud structure and precipitation formation while by capturing images.
The idea, Yorks said, is that all of these records combined would help foster a more complete understanding of winter storms and their snowfall.
“The more samples you have, the more accurate your analysis will be,” Yorks said, explaining that other teams are doing the same work as Millersville students at other locations.
One of the hopes is that forecasting improvements led by the project will help better plan for or counteract snow-related disruptions, including to transportation and public safety, project officials said.
According to the project webpagethere have been significant advances in detection and monitoring technology since snowstorms were last studied in the same way.
Despite this new technology, students still have to do a lot of prep work, Sikora said, applauding the Millersville team, made up of experienced and novice students.
“Students do a lot,” he says. “It’s not just about jumping in the truck and driving to a place, sipping coffee and filling a balloon with helium.”
Among other responsibilities, students must pay attention to forecasts and prepare and load equipment before traveling to a research site, where they launch the balloons, often working outdoors in cold, inclement weather. And sometimes, if something goes wrong, the job has to be repeated.
This year’s portion of the project began on January 10 and will run until the end of February. The mild winter in this area meant Millersville students performed fewer balloon launches than originally hoped.
Proof the works of Millersville is $77,600 in funding from NASA. The entire IMPACTS project is a multi-million dollar business which began in 2020 and is expected to continue through 2023, with some interruptions due to COVID-19, Yorks said.