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2012 News Releases

Longwood course to involve storm-chasing

May 1, 2012

Kelsey Scheitlin
Dr. Kelsey Scheitlin in front of a tornado near Hoxie, Kansas

A prerequisite for students taking one Longwood University class is a willingness to move toward - not away from - funnel clouds, intense winds, hail and swirling debris.

"Exploring Severe Weather in the Great Plains," a 4-credit geography and earth science course, will be offered for the first time by Longwood from May 14-28. The students will fly to Kansas City, then search for severe weather while traveling in a rented minivan through as many as 10 states from Texas to Montana.

"May is an active time for severe weather in the Great Plains, and if you're there for 14 days you can expect at least one exciting thunderstorm and hope for seven or so active weather days," said Dr. Kelsey Scheitlin, assistant professor of geography at Longwood, who is teaching the special topics 495 course.

A week before the students leave, they'll start practicing for their trip during a "forecasting boot camp" where they'll be trained as storm spotters and learn about the geography of the Great Plains. During the course, which will be offered every May if it's successful, students will practice forecasting severe weather, use an iPad application to analyze the storm on radar and compare what they are seeing on the radar to the storm sitting right in front of them.

"We'll also look at how severe weather plays a role in the human and natural environment of the Great Plains, and develop an understanding of the culture of storm chasing," Scheitlin said.

How close will they get to severe weather? "Close enough that we can see a possible tornado and have safe access in and out of a severe storm," she said. "As the storm moves, we stay in front of it and watch it grow and intensify. You stay out of harm's way but still have a good vantage point on the storm. At all costs, you avoid the hail core - it can really damage your rental car."

Of course, not everything goes according to plan. "In Brady, Texas, in 2008, we had stopped for gas when a storm caught up to us, and there was flash flooding, intense winds and flying debris. Fortunately, firefighters found us and let us come inside their firehouse until the storm passed. When chasing another storm, we got a flat tire on a gravel road in Kansas, but a farmer was nice enough to take us into his barn and fix the tire for us."

Scheitlin is teaching the course with Michael Carter, lecturer in meteorology and climatology and a Ph.D. student at Mississippi State University (MSU). They got to know each other when Scheitlin was a graduate student there and Carter was an undergraduate. Scheitlin earned a master's degree in geosciences, with an operational meteorology concentration, from MSU in 2007.

"Most courses like the one at Longwood are for graduate students and meteorologists," Scheitlin said. "It's unusual to offer a course like this for undergraduate nonmeteorology students," she added.

A Facebook page about the course, "Longwood Storm Chase," can be accessed at http://www.facebook.com/LongwoodStormChase. You can also follow the students in the class on Twitter @LUStormChase.

Tornadoes are most frequent in the Great Plains states between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, an area known popularly as Tornado Alley. Texas reports more tornadoes than any other state, though Kansas and Oklahoma, the states with the second and third most tornadoes, have more per unit of land than Texas.

Scheitlin has been a regular on the May Tornado Alley circuit since 2006, traveling annually with a small group of friends and hoping to spot the ultimate storm chaser's satisfaction - a tornado. "I have had only one day where I saw a tornado, but we saw six tornadoes that day. It was a day I will never forget."

The four students taking the Longwood course are no doubt hoping for similar "luck." (The course was capped at four students due to the capacity of the minivan.)

"We'll go all the way from south Texas to north Montana," Scheitlin said, adding the weather along the way will dictate their actual route. "We always go to Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, where you have a good chance of seeing isolated supercells, which is a large rotating thunderstorm.

"As we say, 'storm chasing' is not just 'tornado chasing.' We're looking for picturesque storms that can teach students about severe weather, and a tornado is just an excellent bonus. Each year the first supercell of the chase is one of the most exciting, because you don't realize how awe-inspiring these storms are until you see them in person."

Scheitlin, in her second year at Longwood, teaches climatology and meteorology to undergraduates. The focus of her research is patterns in the tracks of tropical cyclones, which range from weak to strong hurricanes. In February this year, she presented a paper, "Spatial Climatologies of Tropical Cyclone Intensities," at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers held in New York City.

"I want to know what is so special about the strongest hurricanes, why their pathways are different, and how climate variables play a role," said Scheitlin, who plans to compile a guide on Virginia hurricanes that will provide information on characteristics and when they can be expected.