UNIU meteorology students launching weather balloons


When people hear the word “weather”, the first thing that often comes to mind is TV weather forecasters.

A key aspect of meteorology is the study of atmospheric patterns to accurately predict the weather. But NIU professor Victor Gensini says there’s a lot more to this area.

“After earning a degree in meteorology, you are a broadly trained critical thinker,” he said. “You have skills in physics, mathematics, computer science, programming.”

This versatility is one of the reasons the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) contacted Gensini’s department about a cold weather study.

Graduate students Cody Converse (left) and Robert Fritzen (right) coordinate weather balloon launches for NIU Professor Victor Gensini (center)

“They knew we had a meteorology program and said, ‘Hey, are you interested in doing this ICICLE field campaign?’ I think it was one of those emails where it was like, “Yes, how can we help you?” Gensini said.

ICICLE stands for In Cloud Icing and Large-Drop Experiment. A plane takes off from Rockford to scan the skies around the Great Lakes and Plains states. Its instruments look for places where ice is likely to form on other aircraft. But NCAR needs to know when the sky will be cold enough to get the most out of the aircraft’s instruments. To get those readings, they call people like NIU graduate student Cody Converse.

“And then we got together a team of undergrads and ourselves to go and do a launch for their application,” he said.

Converse says each balloon has an instrument at the bottom called a radiosonde.

“As the balloon rises through the atmosphere, this little radiosonde takes measurements every 10 seconds for the launches we do,” he said. “We read all of this data and then, using these GPS coordinates, we can not only track the location of the radiosonde, but we can also calculate the wind speed and direction with altitude.”

NCAR receives these radiosonde readings, which it then uses to plot a course for its research aircraft. NIU is one of several universities to launch these balloons, but a doctoral student, Robert Fritzen, thinks their data carries a little more weight due to DeKalb’s proximity.

The project is supervised by the professor, his graduate students and approximately 16 undergraduate students. Fritzen says his participation in ICICLE inspired him to delve deeper into his subject.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the weather, then when I got to college I had to do a weather research project, and I’ve been addicted to it ever since,” he said. declared. “Looking for new phenomena, understanding the things we don’t know about the atmosphere – I want to dig deeper.”

Gensini says NIU is the oldest university in the state that offers a major in meteorology and the only one north of Interstate 80. He says many graduates go on to broadcast, join the National Weather Service, or pursue studies in national laboratories. But Gensini says it’s far from the only career option available.

“A lot of them go into the private sector and work for startups or companies like insurance companies and reinsurance companies that focus on things like catastrophe modeling,” he said.

Gensini says meteorology majors who study extreme weather events may also share a common passion as exciting researchers or forecasters.

“It’s like being a little kid at Christmas, watching the weather observations come in when we get these kinds of events,” he said.

NCAR concludes the ICICLE study on March 6 and will use its findings to determine aircraft safe times to fly in the winter. But Professor Gensini says there will always be a need for meteorological expertise.

“Every time we go out, we go out, we’re all influenced by the weather,” he said. “I think companies see the importance of hiring meteorologists and that’s why I think they will continue to be in demand over the next 15 to 20 years.”

He says this will continue to be true with increased attention to global warming.


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