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 clich├ęd “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.

Clarifications & corrections regarding the burning car photo

Sadly, at least one person perished today in an incident involving a car fire inside the dock area of the National Weather Center. A photograph I took of the burning vehicle has been retweeted hundreds of times and appeared on a number of major news outlets accompanied by information of varying accuracy. I want to set the record straight about a couple of things I’ve heard and read regarding the image.

1. I didn’t actually witness the incident. At about 3:35 p.m., I came out of my 4th floor NWC office to refill my tea kettle, and noticed a group of people, including my husband, looking and pointing at something outside the bay windows on the northeast side of the building. I could see smoke billowing from somewhere southeast of the building, but couldn’t see the source, and decided to look out the window on the end of the east wing. When I got there, I fully expected to see a grass fire on Hwy. 9 (as often happens when people carelessly flick cigarette butts out their car windows). Instead I was astonished to see this scene in our own dock area:

2. I didn’t break any rules or disobey any instructions to get the image. As I took the photo, the PA finally chimed on: “May I have your attention, please. An unsafe condition has been reported on the east side of the building. Please move toward the center of the building.” For those not familiar with the NWC, it is an L-shaped building with wings pointing toward the north and east, and an atrium area at the elbow. I tweeted the image as I was walking away from the east window, toward the atrium, because I knew all my colleagues in other parts of the building would be wondering what the ambiguous “unsafe condition” was. I wanted to give them a way to see what was happening without having to look for themselves.

3. The image is indeed mine. My husband, who was standing right next to me, took his own photo within seconds of mine, also tweeted it, and it was also used by a number of news outlets. It looks nearly identical, but some details (such as the position of the police officer standing just outside the gate) are different.

4. The radar trucks in the upper left part of the image are SMART-Rs, not DOWs. SMART-Rs (Shared Mobile Atmospheric Teaching and Research Radars) operate at C-band and are jointly owned and operated by OU, NSSL, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) operate at X-band and are owned and operated by the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colorado. Although the two types of radars are used for similar severe storms research (and both operated together in VORTEX2), they represent two separate research groups.

5. The building was never evacuated. We were advised to move to the interior and shelter in place. This was likely done to prevent anyone trying to evacuate through the dock area.

6. I don’t know any more than you do about what happened. The only verifiable facts are that the car rammed through the gate (as is evident in the photo), the car burned, and one (male) person died (stated by Norman FD to several local media outlets). As of this writing, more than six hours after the incident, the bomb squad is still working on the burnt-out car. Beyond that, I consider any information about details, cause, motive, or extenuating circumstances to be only rumors and speculation. I’m satisfied to let the investigators do their jobs and notify the next of kin (who are doubtless in shock). I await a formal statement from OU Public Affairs about this incident.

SLS in Madtown

In early November, I flew back to Madison, Wisconsin for the 27th AMS Conference on Severe Local Storms (or “SLS”, as we call it). For those who don’t know, I got my B.S. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science from UW-Madison. It’s been more than a decade since I packed up my research intern cubicle at SSEC, and I was excited to get back. Experiencing Madison from a high-star hotel within a block of the Wisconsin state capitol dome and State Street was quite a different experience from being stacked, cordwood-style, with other undergraduate students in Chadbourne Hall.

I was much more involved in this conference than I have been in previous ones. This was the first SLS conference on whose program committee I served. That meant I got to review nearly 50 abstracts, helping stratify them into oral and poster slots, and had input on the daily schedule. In addition to our professional contributions, my husband and I also coordinated the informal (and infamous) Video Night for the third time. The conference co-chairs elected to forgo a formal banquet in favor of a come-and-go icebreaker with heavy appetizers, a practice that I favor continuing, because it allows attendees to interact with more than seven people at a round table over the course of the evening.

Contentwise, this SLS conference program was as good as ever. A couple of the highlights:

A note to nonmeteorologists who are interested in severe weather research, particularly students considering a career in that area: Browse the conference program. Watch some of the talks.* Read the extended abstracts and examine the posters. A little more than a decade ago, it wasn’t possible for people outside the conference to access the research presented there (unless you could somehow get your hands on a limited-edition preprint volume). Now, almost the entire content of the conference is available online for public perusal. So, take advantage of it! Get a taste of what scientific research really looks like.

* Keep in mind that the talks are often a 12-minute summary of two or more years of research, coding, and mental exertion. Not all details, caveats, and nuances can be included. (That’s what seminars and peer-reviewed manuscripts are for!)

The Moore tornado doesn’t necessarily mean more tornadoes

During my interview blitz last week, I was asked by multiple reporters to tie the recent Moore tornado to a presumed overall upward trend in the number of U.S. tornadoes. This was a poorly posed query, for two reasons:

Firstly, it is illogical to conflate a single event (e.g., a car accident) with an trend in those events (e.g., an increase with time in the number of car accidents).
Person A: “I got in a car accident last week, therefore the number of car accidents each year is increasing.”
Person B: “I didn’t get in a car accident last week, therefore the number of car accidents each year is not increasing.”
Neither of these statements make any sense! You need at least two data points to begin to discern a trend, and many, many more to discern a statistically significant trend.

Secondly, although media coverage of tornadoes has undoubtedly increased in the last few decades, to the best of our (researchers’) knowledge, the actual number of tornadoes has not. When adjusted for population growth (read: more eyeballs looking for tornadoes), the trend since ~1950 is essentially flat. Here we see an example of what is known as the availability heuristic: People can more easily recall recent tornadoes than those farther back in the past, especially now thanks to saturation coverage of tornadoes. Viewers may reach an erroneous conclusion that the total number of tornadoes each year is increasing. I’d imagine the same holds true for shark attacks, child abductions, and deaths from falling coconuts.

My top three SLS talks

Proceedings of the recent 36th AMS Severe Local Storms conference in Nashville are now online. My new boss, Dr. Pam Heinselman, was one of the co-chairs. She never even broke a sweat!

It was a terrific conference. Highlights included:

  • Dave Lewellen’s ultra-high resolution simulations of tornadoes interacting with other-than-flat topography. Some of his simulations looked remarkably like my video of the 7 November 2011 tornado interacting with the Wichita Mountains!
  • Harold Brooks gave a “mythbusters”-style keynote talk about the 2011 and 2012 tornado seasons, and how the media hype (or lack thereof) squares with statistics. If you have 30 minutes, I highly recommend watching his recorded presentation. It’s an informative hoot!
  • Tim Marhsall, fresh back from surveying the dangling NYC crane from Hurricane Sandy, gave back-to-back presentations about his damage surveys of the 27 April 2011 Alabama tornadoes and the 22 May 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. He always makes me want to rip out the walls of my house to make sure they’re toe-nailed.

There were, of course, lots of other great presentations and posters, including a couple by yours truly, but these were my three favorite.

In addition to my professional contributions, I organized the traditional, less-than-formal “photo and video night” at the conference (with some help from Dan, Lou Wicker, and Judith Z. of the AMS staff). There were contributions ranging from all over the U.S. to Australia, Japan, and Germany. We noted sadly the howling vacuum created by the absence of Dr. Bob Schlesinger – a former colleague at UW-Madison – who is famed for the uniquely-styled presentations that he usually delivers at video night. A response to my inquiry at UW indicated that Bob was unable to travel to the conference because of health issues. I organized a get-well card for him, which was soon so densely scrawled upon by dozens of people that we had to resort to using the back cover. I certainly hope Bob comes back in 2014. It just wasn’t the same without him!