Students track severe weather across the heartland

    July 15, 2013

    They waited anxiously, cameras in hand, eyes on the distant clouds moving and swirling in the distance.

    Eight students from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater had stopped just outside Arcadia, Nebraska, in the heart of Tornado Alley.

    Radar images suggested rotation in the clouds, and a tornado warning from the National Weather Service confirmed it.

    The conditions were perfect for storms. It was just a matter of when.

    And then they saw it - a funnel cloud dropping down from the bottom of a supercell thunderstorm.

    "It was an adrenaline rush from the start. To see students' expressions on their faces was unforgettable," said John Frye, assistant professor of geography and geology.

    Frye and his geography students observed storm after storm after storm on a 6,000-mile road trip across nine states.

    The expedition, May 20-31, happened just as the severe weather season intensified across the Great Plains.

    The field course brought to life elements of meteorology that students' had previously only talked about in the classroom.

    "They saw first-hand the conditions that lead to severe thunderstorms and tornadoes," Frye said.

    Students practiced their forecasting and navigation skills, trying to plot where and when the next round of storms would occur.

    "They looked at maps and led the forecast discussion," Frye said. "They did a great job. We were always a one-hour drive or less from where the storms hit.

    "We'd park the car, keep our eyes on the clouds, and within minutes, they'd explode into supercells," said Ashley Vedvig, a junior geography major from Stoughton. "We saw funnel clouds, wall clouds and small hail."

    Students even learned photography techniques to capture stunning lightning shots.

    Despite witnessing some spectacular weather events, the students were never in danger, according to Frye.

    "Safety is the number one priority. We talked a lot about the safest direction to approach a storm and the best place to observe from a distance," he said. "We're not storm chasers."

    A visit to Moore, Okla., 11 days after a massive tornado killed 23 people and flattened the community, left a very real impression on the group.

    "It left you speechless to see the devastation and cleanup still underway," Frye said.

    "It was pretty devastating and very humbling," Vedvig said.

    After learning about a pair of wheat farmers who needed help clearing debris from their fields, the UW-Whitewater group spent three hours helping.

    "We found teddy bears, love letters, photos of kids and families, a marriage license, a 2X4 with nails - it was unbelievable," Vedvig said. "We only finished one-fifth of what we had hoped to clean up."

    Unlike the other students in the UW-Whitewater contingent, Vedvig had seen tornado devastation first-hand.

    She was in eighth grade when she survived the 2005 Stoughton tornado.

    "I remember the intense pressure, the shaking walls," Vedvig said. "We hid in the shower and when we came out, the front of my aunt and uncle's house had blown in. Trees had fallen on top of cars. Houses were gone. Animals were running around loose. It was surreal."

    The event sparked her passion for meteorology.

    "You learn pretty quickly that you need to take severe weather seriously, and how important it is for future meteorologists to teach severe weather awareness."

    The UW-Whitewater group. Frye is wearing the Warhawk T-Shirt, Vedvig is at the far right.

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