SIUE student storm chasers see the big one

Geography students from SIUE were on hand to see a monstrous storm system that later formed several tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area this past summer.

GEOG429, Storm Chasing and Assessment Field Study, allows students a first hand opportunity to learn respect and to be humbled by the power of nature. Associate Professor Mark Hildebrandt has devoted uncountable hours in past years to create a course that allows students this possibility.

Telephone pole in McGee, MS pulled about 1' out of the ground. Photo courtesy of Danielle Deeke.

Hildebrandt, who grew up in New Hampshire, rarely had the chance to experience tornado activity personally. However, in 1974 when he was six, Ohio had an event that spawned six EF-5 tornadoes, one of the largest in Ohio history. Hildebrandt’s grandfather, who lived in Ohio, found a book in his pasture that had been carried more than 200 miles. Since that time, Hildebrandt has been fascinated and respectfully terrified of the storms.

Because of typical spring weather patterns, GEOG429 is an intensive early summer course. The two week course begins at the end of spring semester. The first week is spent learning techniques to spot and identify the weather patterns that lead to major storm events, including studying cloud and atmospheric signs, storm ingredients and safety. The students also run through local training exercises.

The  class goes into the field the second week. The hope is to watch and record the formation of a major storm system. However, if the system does not develop near them, the class will go to where a storm has developed. This gives the class the chance to learn more about destruction capabilities of the storm and gives Hildebrandt time for storm assessment lessons.

A mesocyclone cloud with the funnel cloud visible. Photo courtesy of Danielle Deeke.

With the high occurrence of storms during this time period, Hildebrandt stated, the class has always been able to participate in large storm assessments. The course “is a great example of experiential learning” Hildebrandt said. “In the classroom, you can talk about thunderstorms all you want, but until you actually go out into the field—and you see it happening and you smell it, you taste it and you live it—you really don’t have a full understanding for the power of nature.”

The point of the course is to learn the signs of major events. To do this on the chase, it is important to stay outside the storm system. The students use geographic knowledge of various types to accomplish this. Map reading, understanding topography, as well as atmospheric recognition and storm patterns, are all put to the test. Because storm paths are unpredictable, Hildebrandt assigns and assists students the task of maintaining an effective escape route.

What is left of a tennis court, fence and surrounding trees in McGee, Miss., destroyed by a tornado. Photo courtesy of Danielle Deeke.

“It is one of those things, where as a professor, it is my responsibility to ensure students safety” Hildebrandt emphasized. “There have been a couple of instances on the chase where a couple of students wanted to go forward and I said stop. We’re close enough and we can’t see what is happening or could be happening up ahead.”

Church destroyed by tornado in McGee, Miss.. Photo courtesy of Danielle Deeke.

The students expressed to Hildebrandt that they get a good understanding of the differences in the types of damage from tornadoes, straight line winds, blizzards and ice storms. They learn to respect the power of nature.

Some of the damage the class saw in the field includes fencing and fence posts wrapped around trees, telephone poles pulled two feet out of the ground, a 12-mile debris field in Swansea, Ill., and the emotional damage as students were able to interview victims from some of the storms they chased.

Geography major Sarah Dane with a mesocyclone behind her. Picture courtesy of Dane.

“Seeing all the hard work we did in the classroom preparing us for the actual event and all the students working together to successfully chase and view the storm was a moving and powerful experience” said Jon Gummers, a senior geography major.

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