Students chase storms, dreams this summer

Three atmospheric sciences majors from the Department of Earth and Environment are literally chasing their dreams this summer.

The seniors were selected for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. REU supports active research participation in a variety of areas, including atmospheric and geospace sciences, earth sciences, astronomical sciences, and social, behavioral and economic sciences. Students are placed with ongoing projects and work closely with faculty and researchers.

“Participation in this program is a wonderful experience for Heather, Astryd and Tony,” said Hugh Willoughby, distinguished research professor in the department and mentor to the students. “It exposes them to the wild and wonderful world of severe thunderstorms and tornados. The continental U.S. puts on a fantastic meteorlogical show in the summer, it will give them a whole new understanding of convective weather.”

Astryd Rodriguez, a traditionally reserved student according to her FIU professors, can’t hide her excitement while encountering a storm during her summer research experience in Kansas.

Astryd Rodriguez is working at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey at the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma. She is helping create a survey that will be distributed among weather forecasting offices to better communicate meteorlogical uncertainty among themselves and to the public.

In addition to collecting and analyzing observational data and conducting interviews with researchers, Rodriguez has also had the chance to chase tornadoes in surrounding areas in Kansas.

“We met up with an experienced storm chaser that had already reached the storm in Dodge City,” Rodriguez said. “It was a massive, cylinder-shaped cloud that kept on spinning. The sky was dark orange, we were being bombarded by lightning and thunder. The city sirens went off, which added more drama.”

Heather Vasquez was assigned to the Center for Multi-Scale Modeling of Atmospheric Process (CMAPP) at Colorado State University. She is studying rainfall prediction from mesoscale convective systems (MCS), a complex of highly-organized thunderstorms, through data collection, data analysis and case studies. This research may help meteorologists better forecast MCS’s and warn for flash floods.

Amid her research, Vasquez was even able to sneak in a storm chase while in Colorado.

“My mentor and I saw a few storms on the radar popping up and we decided to chase one,” Vasquez said. “It was really fun and exciting. I could see the structure of the storms that I’ve learned about in class developing right in front of me. It is amazing to see how powerful mother nature is.”

Anthony Cosio was also assigned to CMAPP in Ft. Collins, Colorado. He is assisting researchers in creating a program that will simulate warm-ring structures, a phenomena in strong tropical cyclones. Cosio explains, these cyclones, typically, have a warm core or eye. However, it has been observed in some storms the wall surrounding the eye is warmer than the eye. Cosio said he hopes this type of research can improve modeling and tracking of cyclones, helping to predict their intensity.

“Meteorology is such a diverse field, but it’s also a field that most people don’t really know a lot about it,” Cosio said. “When I tell someone I’m studying meteorology, they think of the weather people on TV. But that’s not what I want to do. There’s so many other opportunities in this field.”