Students helping hone lake-effect snow forecasting

student with computerA $10,000 grant is paying SUNY Oswego meteorology students to help the National Weather Service better forecast and understand lake-effect snowstorms.

Given the unpredictable nature of lake-effect storms and the crippling effect they can have on Upstate New York communities, this work is of great interest in the professional field and an outstanding educational opportunity, said SUNY Oswego Professor Robert Ballentine, the lead project investigator.

Working with the Buffalo office of the National Weather Service, students study different configurations of the weather researching and forecasting modeling system—which, while state-of-the-art and created by experts, still needs refinement in the tricky task of predicting where and when the most intense lake-effect snow events will happen.

“We’re trying to figure out whether and why the model is making errors along the band,” Ballentine explained. “This is an optimization attempt to take what the National Weather Service is doing now and use it as a control.”

The grant comes from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of North American colleges, under the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training.

Ballentine said that virtually all of the funding goes to stipends for eight students who compare the data from an actual storm with what
the forecasting system predicted the weather pattern would do.

“Since it’s a very new model, we’re trying to determine what kinds of biases it may have,” said Joe Wegman, a sophomore meteorology major from Chantilly, Va., who came to Oswego because of the strong storms and the college meteorology program. Forecasting systems tend to have biases in at least one factor, such as temperature or direction, he noted.

By plotting and comparing observed storm data with what meteorologists predicted, students will help forecasters understand what the biases of the model are and correct for them, thus making future forecasts more reliable, Wegman explained.

Students are studying large weather events, including the recent fall storm in the Buffalo area, that feature bands coming off Lake Ontario or Lake Erie.

Co-project investigators include Al Stamm, Steven Skubis and Scott Steiger of the meteorology faculty.

Researchers also hope to figure out how much certain factors—such as wind speed, moisture, temperature and the diurnal (time of day) cycle—influence the development of lake-effect storms. Ballentine said the study looks at other issues, such as how the hilly terrain east of Lake Ontario contributes to the severity of storms in that area.

“Part of the purpose of this is to get students interested in research, learning about types of technology and the types of work meteorologists do,” Ballentine said.

Wegman confirmed that his participation has augmented both his enthusiasm and his knowledge of lake-effect events.

“Since I’m not from around here, I never realized that lake-effect storms could be so fickle,” Wegman said. “Seeing what happens has greatly enhanced my understanding of how lake-effect storms work and how they behave.”

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PHOTO CAPTION: Snow tracks—Joe Wegman, a sophomore meteorology major from Chantilly, Va., is one of eight SUNY Oswego students helping improve how lake-effect storms are forecast under a $10,000 grant. Students compare data from actual lake-snow events with how the weather researching and forecasting modeling system predicted the storms would behave.

(Posted: Nov 29, 2006)

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