The meteorology department at Oswego State received grant funds from the National Science Foundation for students to conduct up close and personal research with lake-effect snow storms next winter.
The funds total $320,000 and include scientific equipment which consists of an instrument loaded Mobile Integrated Profiling System, three Doppler-on-Wheels radar-equipped trucks, and an airplane that will be used to fly students right into the middle of storms, according to an Oswego State press release.
“I’m pretty excited,” meteorology professor Scott Steiger said. “Since I was a little kid, growing up in Rochester, I always wanted to study lake effect snow storms. So this is kind of achieving that dream of getting a study of what makes them tick and what kinds of effects they have on people.”
Two years ago, the department received an $89,000 grant from the NSF to study the structure of such storms. Planning for this particular program took about ten years and now includes universities from other parts of the country.
The program, now called OWLeS (Ontario Winter Lake-effect Systems), consists of nearly $4 million in three companion NSF grants. A $1 million grant alone includes scientists and equipment from Oswego State, the University of Wyoming, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Alabama-Huntsville, and the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.
“Opportunities like this are generally limited to universities with graduate programs in meteorology, such as the other three schools involved in the grant,” said senior meteorology student Patrick Cavlin. “The fact that SUNY Oswego is a part of it means that our students will be given the opportunity to participate in such research while still at the undergraduate level. Even at a major university, grants like this are limited to the graduate students. In this case however, students at all levels, depended upon the number of open spots, will be eligible to participate in this project.”
Students will continue to study the structure of lake-effect storms and pay particular attention to the different particles inside them compared to other types of snow storms.
“To the public, snow is snow, but there are actually a lot of different kinds of crystals and actually liquid water as well in these clouds and that really controls how quickly the snow will pile up on the ground,” Steiger said.
The students will also try to determine whether there are ways to better estimate snowfall rate based on radar data and why lake-effect clouds sometimes produce lightning.
The part of the project that has gotten the most attention and that students are especially looking forward to is the plane that will fly inside storms to study them, most likely at nighttime, when storms are usually more intense. The aircraft is a Beechcraft model 200T twin Turboprop that is specially instrumented for atmospheric research and is owned by the University of Wyoming, according to the university’s atmospheric science department.
“These storms draw their energy from the lake and the temperature difference between the lake and the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey French, senior research scientist and flight center director at the University of Wyoming. “Part of what we want to measure and understand is how much energy, in the form of heat and moisture, the lake transfers to the atmosphere. We also want to understand how that energy gets distributed in the lower atmosphere. In the clouds, we need to understand how development of clouds and precipitation affect the overall evolution and maintenance of the storm.”
Both Steiger and French maintain that the pilots that will fly the plane ensure student safety aboard such aircraft inside storms where there is a potential for danger.
“We have been operating aircraft for atmospheric research for more than 45 years,” French said. “Our safety program is certified through the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operator, part of the International Business Aviation Council. We conduct internal audits of our program every year and submit to external audits every two to three years. Our engineers, maintenance staff, and pilots are all professional aviation staff.”
French also said that two of the pilots used in this program have 40 years of military flight time between them, that all personnel flying on the aircraft must participate in a safety briefing that outlines their duties and responsibilities during flight, and discuss what to do in the event of an on-ground or in-flight emergency.
Steiger said that more advertisements will be posted about the program starting in September. Meteorology students who are interested will have to submit resumes, have background checks done on their Degree Works to meet possible GPA requirements, and be interviewed to be accepted. Up to 30 students may be selected for this exciting opportunity.
The department hopes that this program might increase student interest in meteorology and interest for high school graduates looking for colleges.
“The fact that our undergrad met students will be able to have a part in this is incredible and will hopefully bolster the image of our program and the school,” Cavlin said. “I think between this and the new science building you’re going to see a lot more perspective students considering Oswego.”
Steiger also said that their research may improve forecasting snowfall rates for the Oswego area and makes the program special in that it can affect both students and the public.
“We’re going to visit school districts with this equipment to show them what it’s about and show what kind of data it can collect and I think definitely an important aspect of the project is to let the public see what we’re doing and get them excited about it,” Steiger said.