By Rachael Kroot
You’ve heard of storm chasers, right? Those really cool people who go out and try to get close to tornados and stuff? Yeah… I’m one of them.
It’s okay, you can be jealous. I just happened to choose the most awesome major at the most awesome school with the most awesome professors and the most awesome opportunities.
As excited as I am to have joined the Mississippi State University storm chase team, though, it is not something that was just thrown in my lap. I was given this opportunity because I make a conscious effort to be involved with the department. As a graduate student, it’s important to talk with professors and other students. If nobody knows who you are (for the right reasons, of course) then nobody is going to tell you when the good stuff is happening.
So how did I become a part of the storm chase team? It all started when the department launched their first weather balloon for the Memphis National Weather Service (NWS). A weather balloon is basically just a giant balloon that takes a weather instrument called a sonde all the way up through the atmosphere to collect data (temperature, dew point, wind speed, etc). I skipped class to attend the first launch as a spectator (yes, sometimes skipping class in grad school for a departmental event is OK).
That first launch was done on a clear day. But the point of the launches is actually to collect data for the NWS before severe weather. The team has to drive all around the Memphis area when storms are on their way. Sometimes this means driving up to six hours from campus. A few weeks into the game, I heard that they had room for an extra team member in the truck. I asked Dr. B if I could go, and he immediately took me to the team leader, Matt.
I should mention here that our team name is officially the TRAMPs. TRAMP is an acronym for “Temperature Reconnaissance Abroad Multiple Platforms” – but I’m pretty sure Dr. B and Matt made that up. We have fun with it. My title is Photo TRAMP (it sounds bad, I know) because I document everything that happens on the launches via photography and videography. I promise everything I document is good, clean fun! I’m glad I have the skills to help out in this way, since I know the least about weather of everyone in the group. I’ve captured some pretty critical moments on camera.
After we launch the balloons, we need to drive in the general direction they’re floating to make sure we stay in range of the radio signal. This usually means driving further from campus. Once the balloon pops, we have some time to kill before the storm actually hits. We’ve chilled at book stores, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Subway, and sketchy gas stations in the middle of nowhere Mississippi. But when the storm finally gets close, things can get a little crazy!
Because the TRAMP team is funded by a grant, we are able to bring Mi-Fi (wireless) with us on the road. We can get radar and GPS tracking on our laptops so we know where the storm is in relation to us. We look for areas of rotation, and then we head that way. Last trip, we even launched a balloon directly into the tornado warned storm (a very proud moment for us). The lightening was striking all around us as we worked -- sometimes storm chasing can be dangerous! Then, when we tried to drive away, we almost had trouble getting out of the storm’s path fast enough!
Despite the danger, I feel safe out there with Matt and the TRAMP team. I have learned more about the weather and reading radar on the chases than I ever would in the classroom. And that’s what grad school is all about!