All posts by tornatrix

Small canvases, big subjects

In which I reveal my recipe for creating storm masks!

A hand-painted face mask featuring a tornado. Read on to find out how I create masks like this.

I’ve enjoyed painting for as long as I can remember. In high school, I produced a 6-foot-tall depiction of the 1980 Roseville, Minnesota tornado for a mural depicting the history of the city. (With no images of the actual tornado at my disposal, I settled for a frame from a film of a 1960s Salina, Kansas tornado instead.)

Becoming a “professor mommy” meant my painting had to take a backseat to child care and academic responsibilities for several years. I would occasionally carve out two hours to take a painting class at our local wine-and-canvas franchise. During the pandemic, however, even that creative outlet was unavailable to me.

Hunting for groceries one July afternoon at Meijer, I spied a palette load of white cotton face masks. An LED bulb lit up somewhere in my addled brain – canvases are also made from cotton, so why can’t cotton masks be canvases? I immediately resolved to set these masks up on a date with my art supplies.

After washing and de-linting that first 10-pack, I painted my first storm mask – based on the famed and infinitely reproduced image of the 3 May 1999 Moore, Oklahoma tornado snapped by Daphne (then Zaras) Ladue – using acrylic paints that I had on hand. A tweet of my creation quickly garnered many positive reactions.

Several more followed:

I quickly learned that acrylic paint isn’t the best for mask painting, because it likes to layer on a canvas rather than soaking in. I’m accustomed to layering images from darkest shades to lightest, sometimes slathering on many layers since acrylic paint is opaque. If the paint layers are too thick, the mask will be stiff and not admit ventilation as easily. Plus, well, it smells like acrylic paint. Yuck.

So, I switched to textile paints, which are thinner. Dick Blick sells a couple variety packs of basic colors in 2.25-oz jars. I particularly like the “natural” colored ones, as it contains a variety of colors necessary to paint foreground scenery like bare soil, scrub, grass, and trees. (If you don’t have the budget to acquire completely new paint, acrylic paint can be thinned with a tiny amount of water. It’s just a bit of a pain to do it for every color.)

Stacks of paint jars and brushes
My art table at present.

The tweet above is my first use of the hashtag #stormmask.

I’ve traded a few such masks for storm video and given others as gifts. It’s been suggested that I should sell these masks on Etsy or similar. While the idea is intriguing, I simply don’t have the time to start a side hustle between my professorial duties and my two kids (both of whom are in and out of COVID lockdown periodically). So, in the spirit of sharing, here, step by step, is my “recipe” for a storm mask.

First, wash and delint the mask. Pin the mask to a cork board, stretching it as taut as possible. If desired, use, well, masking tape to mask the parts of the mask that you don’t want to paint.

A white face mask pinned and taped flat on a board.
Sketch the source image lightly in charcoal or pencil.

Choose a source image. (Here’s the one I used for this mask: a tornado photo from Darin Brunin.) Sketch the basic outline on the mask using a light pencil or charcoal. Don’t focus on details at this point; just focus on proportions and strong color and lighting gradients.

In opposition to how I paint with acrylics, I paint textile paints starting from the lightest colors and proceeding to the darkest. Those of you who work with watercolors will understand. These light regions are usually sunlit areas and the whites of clouds.

Mixing paint on a palette.
Use bright colors (white and yellow) for areas that are sunlit. Peg the other shades relative to the lightest ones.
Partially painted storm mask.
Start from the lightest areas and work your way to the darker ones.

Plan for pleats. Many storm photographers shoot using the rule of thirds. As it happens, the masks I paint have two pleats that separate the paintable area into thirds. If you sketch your design out well, you can make the pleats work with the picture by aligning the landscape with the bottom pleat and the cloud base with the top pleat.

Partially completed storm mask with more layers of color
Working toward the darker hues.

I paint the foreground last, mostly because it usually requires darker colors and more attention to details like leaves, fence posts, and telephone poles. You could omit these items, of course, but I like to leave them in if they aren’t too intrusive, because they add an element of mystique to the picture.

A painted mask pinned to a cork board.
Image complete; use a fine pointed brush to add foreground details like telephone poles. Note that the horizon follows the fabric contours.

Let the mask dry overnight, then remove the pins so that the fabric doesn’t become permanently stretched out. Don’t be that person with the mask sagging down below their nose. The result should look something like the image at the top of this article.

You can wear the mask at this point, but I’d actually avoid trying to launder it for a few more days, and perhaps as long as a week. Fabric paint is more like dye, and prone to bleeding in hot water if it isn’t completely dry. I presume you don’t want to end up with tornado-shaped spots on your other garments.

Some other miscellaneous tips:

Brushes: I use medium-size brushes for sky, and small, pointed brushes for details. Since masks are small, there’s not much room for error. I’ve redone an entire mask after using too thick of a brush and ending up with a fat cactus-like glob rather than a telephone pole.

If painting a tornado, place the tornado slightly off-center. This practice avoids the appearance of an elephant trunk (not the tornadic kind) on your face when you finally don the mask.

To make the colors last multiple washings, use a mild detergent, like Woolite, and wash them on the delicate cycle. Dry the mask on low or medium heat; high heat may cause the mask to curl up or stiffen.

Lastly, have fun making your own masks! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – learn from them and paint on! If I really screw up a design, I can easily redo it on the other side.

I find painting storm masks therapeutic – a workout for my right brain after I pummel my left brain with my intellectual pursuit du jour. Unlike large canvases that can take me weeks to complete, I can usually crank out a storm mask in about 30 to 45 minutes. Talk about instant gratification!

I hope this inspires you. Good luck! I’d love to see what you come up with; please tag me on Twitter!

Meteorological field work: life changing experience, or “glorified road trip”?

Do field experiences really matter that much to meteorology students? You bet, and I’ve got evidence! My more ardent followers may recall that in 2016, Dr. Dan Dawson and I started a ‘storm chasing’ course called “Students of Purdue Observing Tornadic Thunderstorms for Research”, or SPOTTR for short. We want students to get a taste of what severe storms field work is like, so we incorporate all the elements of a real field program, including research-quality instruments. SPOTTR has grown very popular over the past four years, to the point where we have students apply by essay for a limited number of slots.

I’ve taken my first foray into the world of Atmospheric Science Education Research (ASER) with a new paper on SPOTTR in the June electronic edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. In this paper, I seek to answer the questions,

  • “Can a storm-centered field experience help students learn meteorology?”
  • “Does SPOTTR improve students’ career aspirations and confidence in their meteorology skills?”
  • “Is SPOTTR a worthwhile investment of time and resources?”

The last question was actually my primary motivation for writing the paper. SPOTTR is an expensive class to run. We travel thousands of miles, requiring vehicle rental and fuel, multiple nights’ lodging, rental of a radar truck when feasible, and the purchase of expendables like radiosondes and helium. After the first SPOTTR course, questions arose regarding whether the expenses were worthwhile for such a short-but-intensive experience. (SPOTTR is a four-week class, including a one-week field trip).

I looked to my geology colleagues, for whom field camp is considered an indispensable capstone experience. Geologists have produced copious literature in both geoscience and education journals showing what formative and valuable experiences field camps can be. I pondered how to quantify the benefits of SPOTTR in a similar way. I was already aware of basic Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) tools through my attendance at teaching workshops. I reached out to some of my colleagues in education research for help. I was introduced to Dr. Loran Carleton Parker, a former EAPS graduate herself, who has since gone on to become the director of Purdue’s Education and Learning Research Center. She was excited to help me evaluate SPOTTR.

Together, we modified a survey she had developed for undergraduate research experience program to apply specifically to aspects of the SPOTTR course. Our experiment design involved giving mostly similar pre- and post-course surveys to the students, and then calculating the change (delta) in the students’ responses before and after participating in SPOTTR. The questions asked the students about their confidence in their forecasting, storm observation, and presentation skills, as well as larger-picture questions such as their career aspirations and intentions to go to graduate school (for the undergraduates). We first deployed the survey in the 2017 SPOTTR class using pencil and paper, then switched to an online survey in 2018 and 2019.

After giving the survey for three consecutive years to a total of 18 students, I finally felt confident enough in the results to submit them for peer review. The results were compelling as well as gratifying: students reported across the board that SPOTTR participation had increased their severe weather forecasting skills, their awareness of meteorology career paths, and their confidence in their ability to participate in future field programs effectively. Additionally, the undergraduate students reported an increase in their intentions to attend graduate school. In particular, I want to draw readers’ attention to Figs. 6 and 7 of the paper, which graphically illustrate these gains. Clearly, this four-week course made an enormous difference in the students’ aspirations. The investment of time, resources, and energy was indeed worth the expense associated with running the course. Case closed.

This paper is my first refereed article in the area of ASER. Needless to say, becoming a professor in 2015 made me acutely aware of how much I had to learn about teaching and learning. I taught a large, lower-division course on severe weather when I was a graduate student, but teaching upper-division undergraduates and graduate students was a whole different ball game. I dove into a multitude of literature on evidence-based practices for good teaching, and reflected extensively on positive teaching experiences I’d had as a student myself, many years ago. I’m still learning to teach, and with every course I profess, I believe I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

Ironically, in light of these positive results, this year SPOTTR was cancelled by the novel coronavirus pandemic. We had to tell six very disappointed students who submitted thoughtful applications to be part of this year’s cohort that the course would not be taking place owing to university-wide restrictions on travel. As I’ve described previously, it was simply irresponsible for us to take the trip when we could unintentionally transport a deadly illness around with us.

This summer, instead of teaching SPOTTR, I’ve poured my time into thinking about how to develop a remote track for SPOTTR. By incorporating things like canned online chase modules, we could pandemic-proof the course and avoid the disappointment of 2020. I also want to incorproate video streaming and live chat in order to expand SPOTTR’s reach to students who can’t physically accompany us on the field trip due to a variety of constraints, including disabilities. Adding this remote track will be a significant undertaking, and I’m planning to applying for external funding to develop it. Stay tuned!

An appreciation of Dr. Ted Fujita’s contributions to meteorology

I was quoted in a recent blog post by Dr. Bob Henson regarding the legacy of the late Dr. Ted Fujita. This post was released in the build-up to a new television documentary about Fujita’s life, scheduled to premiere 19 May 2020 as part of the PBS series American Experience. Definitely appointment viewing!

Here’s a longer version of the essay that I sent Bob:

As a tornado nerd growing up in Minnesota in the 1980s, Dr. Tetsuya (Ted) Fujita was a supernatural figure. Much of what I knew about him, I learned from the compilation “Tornado Video Classics”, as well as reading some of his papers at my local library. Although I never met Dr. Fujita in person (he passed away in 1998, when I was still an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin — Madison), I, now a professor of meteorology, consider myself an heir of his scientific legacy. No matter which line of scientific inquiry I make in my tornado research, I always seem to come back to Fujita’s books and papers.

Dr. Fujita’s expertise was forged in disasters, starting with his team’s analysis of the Nagasaki atomic bomb blast zone. He provided meticulous and detailed analyses of tornado events, providing convincing evidence of suction vortices, tornado families, and anticyclonic tornadoes, and the discovery of downbursts and microbursts as a phenomenon particularly dangerous to aviators, among others. Not one to remain satisfied with case studies, Dr. Fujita also unified his observations into conceptual models for downbursts and tornadoes, the Fujita-Pearson scale for rating tornadoes, and the first tornado climatologies.

Dr. Fujita’s influence on the field of meteorology is unindelible. Possibly his best-known paper, Tornadoes and Downbursts in the Context of Generalized Planetary Scales (J. Atmos. Sci., 1981), which provided the atmospheric science community with a unified conceptual framework for classifying atmospheric motions by scale (macroscale, mesoscale, etc.), has garnered more than 500 citations according to Web of Science. Its figures have been reproduced in countless textbooks.

I reflect with amazement on the years of intense and expensive research that went into creating the original Fujita scale of tornado intensity back in 1973. Even today, with mobile Doppler radars, accurate wind measurements in the surface layer of tornadoes are exceedingly rare. Fujita recognized that the only consistently available indicator of a tornado’s wind speed is the damage path that it leaves behind. By studying hundreds of tornado damage tracks, Dr. Fujita was able to correlate damage to a standard indicator (a well-built house) to wind speeds, thereby creating the Fujita scale that is the basis for the Enhanced Fujita scale that we use today. All of this research was done without the aid of Doppler radars, drones, or machine learning. Photogrammetry, hand-drawn analyses, and brain power were his primary tools.

I was struck, as a child first learning about Fujita’s work, by how even I could understand many of his graphics. They were simultaneously highly complex and yet crystal clear in their content and messaging. Removed from their journal or report context, Fujita’s figures are practically works of art, even more so because each image or frame of animation was painstakingly drafted by Fujita’s own hand. As a junior scientist, the lesson I took is that one can almost never spend too much time perfecting a figure. It will be remembered long after the accompanying, explanatory text is forgotten.

Lastly, as an American tornado scientist of Japanese ancestry, I was pleasantly surprised to learn from his autobiography that Dr. Fujita hailed from the Japanese island of Kyushu, which is the same place from which my ancestral relatives immigrated to this country. My Japanese relatives, who are not scientists, were pleased to learn that this region of Japan produced such an influential figure as Dr. Fujita. It is fascinating to think that his ancestors and mine may have walked the same streets of Fukouka prefecture in the early 20th century.

Lessons I’ve learned from six weeks under stay-at-home orders

One of the core tenets of my teaching philosophy is that people learn more outside their comfort zones than inside. These past six weeks working from home have reinforced that lesson to me in an indelible way.

Like many academics, I’ve been faced with restricted access to my campus, virtualization of my resources, a sudden pivot to remote teaching, and the added challenge of handling child care responsibilities during working hours. My academic responsibilities, on paper, are unchanged – I’m still expected to be putting in at least forty hours a week on my research and teaching responsibilities. What’s different now is that I’ve got child care layered on top of this multidimensional parfait of time management.

In no way should the following entry be construed as me complaining. I’m acutely aware that 30 million Americans’ incomes suddenly dried up, and thousands of Americans have been sickened and even died. My gratitude journal reads like a litany of middle class privilege. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare my privilege in having access to continuous employment, good public schools, quality child care, advanced health care, and robust internet connectivity. I am also grateful that my three graduate students can remain in my employ. For my part, I’ve done my level best to contribute what resources I can to organizations assisting those in need, and to supporting local businesses struggling to stay afloat. I offer one dual-career academic’s experience of the COVID-19 crisis at a Midwestern U. S. university in hopes that the lessons I’ve learned will help others, and contribute to the larger cultural narrative of this unique moment in history.

Since becoming a “professor mommy,” I’ve worked hard to compartmentalize my life, i.e., I keep my work and domestic responsibilities separated in time and space. (I was raised by compartmentalizer parents, and I believe I am a better person for it.) When 5 p.m. rolls around, I switch from work mode into domestic mode. I sign out of my workstation, pick up my kids, and from that point on, I’m 100% focused on my family and my home. I strive to make these boundaries clear to everyone I interact with regularly, including my colleagues, my students, my friends, and my family. (It’s even in my syllabi.) Of course, there are occasions when work “leaks” into my domestic space-time, such as when big grant proposals are due, or exams loom. I also catch myself contemplating dinner plans after 4 p.m. But I chafe whenever these boundaries blur.

In early March, as news headlines filled with dire warnings about coronavirus’ unstoppable spread, disrupting higher education worldwide, I sensed that I facing a tectonic shift. Every day, I would open my email inbox and mentally play back a record scratch. Between 2 March and 10 March — a period of just over one week — my institution’s administrative messages escalated from vague references to ‘continuity plans’, to explicit instructions to teach and work from home. My husband, also on tenure track in the same department and teaching his own course, faced the same inundation of messages.

As the next two weeks unfolded, my older child’s school shifted to remote instruction, and my younger child’s therapy center shut down completely. I was extremely fortunate to have a partial backstop; our part-time day care center was able to take my older child on full-time, but could only continue to care for my special needs younger child part-time. My husband and I would have to manage him for more than half of our nominal working hours each weekday.

After years of staunch compartmentalization, I was suddenly obligated to invite work into my domestic space. Like an unwelcome visitor, it took over our guest bedroom (now my remote office). I cleaned off the cluttered desk where my disused gaming / video editing workstation sat, brought home a few indispensable books and papers from my office, ordered a large monitor to connect to my work laptop, and tried to delineate “work space” by affixing yellow masking tape to the carpet. (Some friends pointed out that I inadvertently re-created a scene from the 1970s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.)

A desk with two monitors, a laptop and a chair.
My home office has never been this clean since.

The physical transition was easier than the mental transition. I found that my internal connections between setting and activity were deeply ingrained, and now I had to unlearn them in a hurry. For the first few days, my eyes kept wandering around the house, looking for chores to do. To resist those urges, I worked from coffee shops and the library for a few hours a day, until those facilities were closed statewide on 16 March.

But for my younger son’s care needs, the transition from that point might have been smooth. However, he insists on being in the same room with me at almost all times. How can I blame him? I’ve instilled in him since maternity leave that Mom will be 100% present for him, physically and mentally, when she is at home. Both my kids have had to adapt to the idea that Mom and Dad have “work hours” at home now, during which they should not be disturbed except in emergency circumstances. My older son has adapted well to this new paradigm (e-learning keeps him busy). But, as anyone who has interacted with me on WebEx in the last month-and-a-half can attest, my younger son has no respect for my work space or hours. He tore up the afore-mentioned yellow tape about two weeks after I put it down. He’s made countless appearances in my WebEx meetings and office hours, in various states of undress. My pets have made their presence known, visually and audibly. I’ve stopped apologizing for these types of incidents. What would have been considered a professional faux pas prior to March 2020 is now acceptable, even commonplace. We’re all in the same boat!

Teaching remotely is difficult, but not as hard as I imagined. (My use of the term remote rather than online is deliberate, informed by articles like this one and this one.) I was in the middle of teaching radar meteorology, an upper-division course, when I suddenly had to pivot to remote teaching. Fortunately, we had already completed our field trips to two radar sites (KIND and XTRRA) in February. I had already began to incorporate more online resources and tools (LMS, Gradescope, Slack, WebEx) in past courses, mostly as a matter of convenience. The COVID-19 crisis scattered my students across multiple states, and forced me to adopt technological solutions wholesale, all at once. I began by cultivating my institution’s online resources, leaning more heavily on our textbook, and recording video lectures using tools my institution provided.

What did I find? Through meticulous preparation, I could condense material that would normally occupy a 50-minute lecture into two or three five-minute videos. (Skeptics of higher education might point to that statement as proof that I’m overcompensated. To that argument I answer, each five-minute video took approximately two hours of laborious research, scripting, and editing.) Before the shift, the other 35 to 40 minutes of each class period were used for interaction with my students: asking questions, clarifying concepts, sharing personal experiences, and reading the room to make sure that they are getting it. I attempted to replace that interactivity in two ways: over Slack, by posing a few specific questions each day based on the videos, and WebEx office hours twice a week. The students, for their part, actively embraced this new routine, and I enjoyed watching them chat and deliberate, both in real time and asynchronously. My job as a professor isn’t simply content delivery; I’m not Grubhub for information. Fully two-thirds of my class periods are spent actively engaging future professionals in knowledge transfer, empowerment, and mentoring. The pandemic is casting a long shadow over our fall semester as well; I’m making a “Plan B” for every course I teach from here on out.

My research has definitely suffered. The research project that I was working on has essentially ground to a halt — my field program for this year and the storm chasing class that I’ve been documenting for scholarship were both cancelled. Proposal writing requires an intensive focus that’s in short supply around my household. It’s impossible to focus on “deep work” with a rambunctious three-year-old climbing on my back and pulling my hair. (I was even struck on the head with a child’s footstool while writing this!) I’m lucky if I can carve out a consistent 30-minute block each day for writing, let alone long, uninterrupted, multi-hour blocks that my type of research and writing require. My institution has recognized these difficulties, and even offered to let me extend my tenure clock by an extra year if I so choose.

Schools are not “closed.” When the pandemic recedes, public school teachers deserve a ticker-tape parade, healthy raises, lengthy vacations, and an entire chocolate raspberry cheesecake. Each. Teachers (and their support staff) are having to work harder than ever to stay connected and engage kids outside the classroom. My older son’s first grade teacher was already using some online teaching tools in class, tools that took on new importance. As I worked to set them up for my son, I was impressed with their content and quality. My older son’s teacher did an amazing job communicating clearly her expectations for the transition, and what tools we needed to have in hand. She stayed interactive, replying to comments in online chat, even had a virtual lunch with each student during the month of April to maintain her presence in their lives.

Fortuitously, I’m of an age where I’ve internalized that nothing in life is permanent. Many aspects of my adult life in which I’ve never experienced disruptions — public school, social gatherings, going to libraries, or simply eating at restaurants — were suddenly off-limits. I’ve cultivated a mindfulness practice that allows me to live fully in the moment, and face the challenges in front of me without yearning for the past or worrying (much) about the future. Oh, I’ve had my fair share of anxiety about my family’s health, sleepless nights, and mental chatter about the future stability of my institution and academic career.

But, like Star Trek‘s Borg warn us, resistance is futile. I understand that change is an intrinsic part of life, and attempting to cling to what is lost will only make me miserable. The writings of Dr. Aisha Ahmad, in particular, have been an anchor of sanity. Adaptation is stressful. As the Beastie Boys once opined, “The only way around this sh*t is through.”

I’ve alluded to gratitude throughout this message. I’ve made it a daily practice, and I think it’s allowed me to remain relatively peaceful as I move forward, one day at a time, further outside my comfort zone and into an uncertain future.

Child writing with sidewalk chalk
My son completes our giant thank-you card to our community.

(Not) chasing in the COVID-19 era

Dan Dawson and I recently cancelled our annual field trip course, Students of Purdue Observing Tornadic Thunderstorms for Research (SPOTTR), which was due to take place in late May. It was a painful decision. Many of our contemporaries at other institutions are also cancelling their “storm chasing” courses, owing to the recent outbreak of coronavirus/COVID-19 that’s kept most Americans confined in our homes.

The rationale for our decision was fairly simple: During our field trip, we generally travel all over the Great Plains, stopping in small towns to grab food, use bathrooms, and stay at hotels. Instead of being casual visitors, we risked becoming disease vectors, or contracting the virus ourselves. Either way, it was socially irresponsible for us to take a group on a field trip in the midst of a pandemic.

A group of people with a balloon
SPOTTR 2019 students prepare to launch a radiosonde in Salina, Kansas.

We briefly contemplated taking the course online, with a virtual chasing component. As every storm chaser knows, however, 4K or even 360-degree video streaming can’t beat the real thing. There’s no substitute for feeling the Gulf of Mexico moisture on your skin and in your nose, for listening to the rumble of thunder at a full range of audible and tangible frequencies, and for watching a rotating updraft twist and dance like a living, breathing mountain in the sky. In our informed opinion, this sort of experience simply cannot be reproduced over the internet. During VORTEX2, during a television interview for the Weather Channel, I opined (to the best of my recollection), “It’s one thing to watch a tornado on television, where it’s confined in a box. It’s another to see it with your eyes, to know that everything in the environment and atmosphere around you is creating this spectacle, and actually causing it to happen in front of you. It fills your whole world.”

Ironically, we’ve got a BAMS paper (in early online release) touting the success of the SPOTTR course. Over the last three years, we collected survey data from SPOTTR students that demonstrate unequivocally that their participation expands their knowledge and career aspirations. We’ve watched class after class nail the ingredients-based method for forecasting supercells, students begin to truly envision themselves as future professionals, and each cohort develop close bonds with one another that persisted years after the course ended.

We concluded the paper by speculating that each SPOTTR cohort’s camaraderie is the “secret sauce” that makes the course work so well. As I wrote in the manuscript,

“Each cohort spent more than 150 hours traveling together, eating together, talking together, and lodging together, creating a shared experience base and a common reference frame… Additionally, the group was collectively dedicated to a shared scientific mission. The instructors experienced similar long-term cohesion among participants in previous field projects (e.g., VORTEX2), which also involved a shared mission and common experiences.”

Even the most full-featured learning management system can’t reproduce that experience.

Furthermore, I would argue that a big part of what makes storm chasing “work” in general is a similar sense of camaraderie. Yes, much of the modern storm chasing enterprise is online – streaming video, photo sharing, social media, clicks, and likes. But those online interactions have roots in good, old-fashioned, analog human relationships — running into current and former chase partners in remote corners of the Plains, pushing vehicles out of the mud, and dining after dark at hole-in-the-wall eateries with friends we only see once a year, while the lightning sizzles on the horizon.

A woman with two children in a crowded room
Attending the last ChaserCon in January 2020 with my two boys.

I’m going miss all that this year. I want to keep my storm intercept skills sharp, but avoid non-essential travel. My plan for this year is to chase opportunistically, close to my home in West Lafayette, Indiana, and be an active storm spotter in my local community. As long as the storms are within one bathroom run of home, I’ll be there!

On the subject of human interactions, this past January, I made a point to take my family to the very last ChaserCon in Denver. It is ironic to think that only two months ago, we sat at the back of a crowded ballroom around circular tables, hearing speakers like Dr. Greg Forbes and Tim Marshall regale us with their tales from the Plains. It’s simply impossible for me to look back on that gethering now without viewing it through the lens of the current paradigm of “social distancing”. Such a gathering would be impossible under the current coronavirus restrictions.

Here’s looking forward to the days when the pandemic recedes, and life, and chasing, return to normal. When it does, I’m going to make a point to cultivate those human relationships. Even when the social distancing is no longer the norm, I won’t be socially distant!

SPOTTR class field trip blog

Four years ago, Dan and I started a new course at Purdue entitled Severe Storms Field Work. One of the students dubbed it Students of Purdue Observing Tornadic Thunderstorms for Research (SPOTTR), which became the unofficial class moniker. Our objective is to give students a taste of real severe weather research by involving them on our field programs, while teaching them the basics of severe storms forecasting and research techniques. All this happens in a scant four weeks. SPOTTR’s grown into a small phenomenon over the years, attracting students from outside atmospheric science and even from outside Purdue.

Two SPOTTR students deploying a PIPS
Two SPOTTR students practice deploying a Portable In Situ Precipitation Station (PIPS).

This year’s class field trip gets underway on Saturday, 25 May and runs through the end of May. As always, we’ll be using the Twitter handle @EAPS_SPOTTR.

We also have two special guests along for the ride: Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman, who co-authored The Tornado Scientist children’s book in which I was featured earlier this year. They will be live-blogging the trip at Please bookmark it and follow along!

Greetings from Purdue / New book!

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you read about me in The Tornado Scientist by Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman, and were curious whether this blog was still active. If so, welcome! Yes, I am still alive. It was never my intent for this blog to “go dark” when I left Norman three-and-a-half years ago. I’ve simply got enough professional obligations to fill 200% of my available working hours every week. Academic life is not for the faint of heart! On top of all that, Dan and I added a second child to our family in 2017 – double the fun! I’m usually asleep within 10 minutes of my head hitting the pillow every night, so blogging is been far from my first priority. If you really care about what I’m doing or thinking on a daily basis, follow my @tornatrix Twitter feed.

Robin presenting a poster about Purdue's new radar at the 2018 AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Stowe, Vermont.
Presenting a poster about Purdue’s new radar at the 2018 AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Stowe, Vermont.

It’s not like I have any shortage of stuff to write at about. Here are some highlights of the last few years that I hope to write up at length:

  • I started my own lab at Purdue – The Weather Radar Research Laboratory (WRRL – see what I did there?), where I’ve had two or three grad students under my tutelage since 2016. It’s been such a privilege to work with them all.
  • I was a co-PI (principal investigator) for VORTEX-Southeast in 2016 and 2017. VORTEX-Southeast is a very different animal from VORTEX2. (Speaking of which, I recently realized this year marks TEN YEARS since VORTEX2 began. When did I get so old?!?)
  • I participated in field work remotely while caring for a tiny baby – something that would not have been possible during VORTEX2. I sure hope I can write about that experience sometime.
  • Dan and I started a new class at Purdue called “Severe Storms Field Work”, where we give eight lucky students a taste of the Great Plains chasing life each year in exchange for their assistance collecting meteorological data. You can follow our adventures each year on the class Twitter feed, @eaps_spottr.
  • I spearheaded an effort to get a weather radar installed at Purdue – a dream that finally came to fruition last summer. The X-band Teaching and Research Radar (XTRRA) has been up and running since September 2018.
  • I landed an NSF grant for more than half a million dollars to study polarimetric radar signatures in potentially tornadic supercells.
  • I’ve also developed a burgeoning interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, mainly so I can improve my teaching abilities for the dozens of students I teach and mentor every year.
  • I led a pilot study to test storm spotter reactions to shortwave infrared (SWIR) imagery of thunderstorm cloud bases, in collaboration with an undergraduate student and Sensors Unlimited.
  • I’ve presented at about half a dozen meteorological conferences in locations ranging from Portland, Oregon to the Netherlands. Those conferences provide rare chances for me to reconnect with my “Oklahomies.”
  • I hosted an educational deployment of a Doppler on Wheels as part of my Radar Meteorology class at Purdue last spring.
  • Last but not least, I had the privilege to work with Mary Kay Carson and Tom Uhlman on The Tornado Scientist. The book proposal was appealing to me because the target age range is 8 to 11 years. I wanted to put myself out as a role model, particularly for young teens at risk of losing interest in STEM careers.

To all my new followers, I extend my greetings, and invite questions. I can’t always guarantee responses in a timely manner, but I will do my best!

A farewell to Norman

The time has come for our family to leave Norman, Oklahoma. My husband and I are about to start new chapters as Assistant Professors in the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Department at Purdue University in Indiana. We were reluctant to leave Norman, severe weather capitol of the world, after 13 years, but were presented with an opportunity that was just too good to pass up. Dual tenure track positions only come along once in a blue moon! We’ll also be much closer to family. Of course, we’ll miss Norman, but we plan to be back – often. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking stock of the things that make Norman a special and unique place to live.

Things I will miss about living in Norman, Oklahoma:

  • The dryline. (Duh!)
  • Watermelon Slim concerts
  • Watching planes take off and land over roadhouse toast at Ozzies
  • Imbibing Swirls on the patio at The Mont
  • The Weekend Blues on KGOU
  • Grillfests
  • Steak houses where you can drop peanut shells on the floor while Joe Diffee plays in the background, and whose cooks know what “medium rare” means.
  • Mild winters
  • The Oklahoma Mesonet
  • Fried okra
  • The Oklahoma Food Coop
  • Having other severe weather geeks next door, upstairs, downstairs, across the table, across the street, and across town.
  • Clear Bay Cafe (I hope they re-open soon!)
  • Radomes on the horizon every where I go.
  • Copelin’s
  • Annie’s Ruff House
  • Tex-Mex and BBQ done right.
  • Scissor-tailed flycatchers
  • Catching up with friends over brunch migas at Abner’s
  • Penny, our friendly neighborhood peahen
    “Penny,” our friendly neighborhood peahen
  • All the friends and professional connections I’ve made here. (At least I get to take my husband with me!)

Things I will NOT miss about living in Norman, Oklahoma:

  • Blast furnace summers
  • Being used for target practice while cycling
  • Game day gridlock
  • That weird Prairie Kitchen on Main St. that sat there for over a decade, apparently vacant, but with its lighted sign glowing, like a post-apocalyptic apparition.
  • The not-so-subtle flavor of Lake Dirtybird turning over

When I moved to Norman in 2002:

  • From my first apartment (at Apple Creek), I could look across I-35 at an empty strip of land west of Max Westheimer Airport, punctuated by a large mound of earth farcically called Mount Williams.
  • Target was located at Main & 24th.
  • OU’s School of Meteorology was still housed in Sarkeys Energy Center. The National Weather Center was on the drawing board, but hadn’t yet been built.
  • Coach’s was still Coach’s (and still standing), with patrons of the Vista sneering at them from high above.
  • There was still a DQ on Main.
  • Smartphones didn’t exist. When our group needed internet connectivity while chasing, we actually had to stop the car. Then, we would either commandeer a public phone for AOL dialup, or mooch free wifi from motels.
  • House of Hunan was still in business. It was located down the strip from the now-defunct-but-maybe-not-for-long dollar theater.
  • I was single. One fateful day, I wandered into Alan Shapiro’s Advanced Dynamics I class, and sat down next to a guy wearing fishbowl glasses and a giant wristwatch sporting a popup anemometer. I thought, “Who is that dork?” The rest, as they say, is history.

I have big plans for continuing my research at Purdue. (We’ll see how well they square with the reality of faculty life!) I’m sure we’ll be making plenty of trips back to Norman… particularly in the springtime!

Review: The Mercy of the Sky by H. Bailey

Holly Bailey has written an engaging account of the 20 May 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, EF-5 tornado: The Mercy of the Sky. I watched this tornado from the window of the KOUN control building on the north side of Norman. From my vantage point, several miles away, it was a silent, bluish-gray elephant trunk on the horizon, cloaked in dust. As it moved past me to the north, crossing I-35 in Moore, I lost all view of it against the background precipitation. I knew lives were being upended – and, in some cases, ended – at the ground beneath it. This book tells the story of the chaos that I could not see unfolding.
The Mercy of the Sky
The devastation the 2013 Moore tornado wrought was revealed to me largely via the media over the next weeks and months. I already knew full well the story of the National Weather Service, the local media, and storm chasers’ activities on that day. Familiar dramatis personae like NWS’s Rick Smith and my Ph.D. adviser, Howie Bluestein, are key players in the book. For me, The Mercy of the Sky filled in the story of what happened to the people on the ground in the tornado’s path: homeowners frantically seeking shelter, school administrators and teachers protecting students at Briarwood and Plaza Towers Elementary Schools with their own bodies, a farmhand at Orr Family Farms turning horses loose from their stables in the hopes they might instinctively outrun the tornado, and the heartache of (mis)counting the dead afterward.

So compelling were the tales woven together in this book that I finished it in three days. I came away knowing a short list of the names of the people who experienced the tornado firsthand. Bailey, an Oklahoma native, is a talented writer with a penchant for simile (For example, writing about a group of people watching tornado debris from nearby buildings descend from the sky, “It looked like they were inside a snow globe of construction materials that was slowly being shaken up,” p. 218). She also does a very thorough job establishing the context in which the 2013 Moore tornado occurred, including an abbreviated history of the rise of severe storms research in Oklahoma, the TV “weather wars,” and the 3 May 1999 F-5 Moore tornado. Along the way, I learned some local factoids I didn’t know before (e.g., Jim Gardner, KWTV’s helicopter pilot, was the same pilot who covered O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Ford Bronco ride back in 1994).

Speaking meteorologically, Bailey’s conveyed understanding of storm formation only barely exceeds the clichéd “clash of air masses“, a point she readily admits. She repeatedly refers to radar as a predictive tool that can “project” where storms will go. In fact, radars cannot make predictions, only observations. Additional software tools are required to turn radar observations into forecasts. That may seem like a trivial distinction to most readers, but to me, a research meteorologist specializing in radar data assimilation, the difference translates into an extensive body of research.

In spite of a few hiccups like these, I greatly enjoyed the Mercy of the Sky, and recommend it to anyone interested in learning about the interplay between severe weather and regional culture.

Storm merger paper

I have a new paper in this month’s issue of the journal Weather and Forecasting entitled “Impacts of a Storm Merger on the 24 May 2011 El Reno, Oklahoma, Tornadic Supercell“. In it, my coauthors and I investigated whether a particular instance of a smaller storm merging into a mature tornadic supercell (“Storm B” in the NWS nomenclature) was related to the “handoff” between tornadoes B1 and B2. The answer, for this particular case, was “No.”

I made a 12-minute presentation about the work behind this publication at the 27th AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. To summarize, when we assimilated phased array radar (PAR) data into a model to retrieve the updrafts, I found that, despite the apparent union of the reflectivity contours just before the tornado handoff, the updrafts actually joined together about 10 minutes later, approximately 5 minutes after the tornado handoff. Therefore, we were not convinced that the merger caused the handoff in this particular instance. We speculated, because of the complexity of the interactions between the two storms, that not all storm mergers would proceed like this one. Our speculations align with a wealth of anecdotal storm chaser observations, wherein storm mergers are associated with a spectrum of outcomes ranging from apparent enhancement of to cessation of tornado production. A great deal of research remains to be done on the relationship between storm mergers and tornadogenesis.