Lake-Effect Fame
Doppler-on-Wheels gathers snow data, media interest

Winter break’s heavy snows and a radar-lugging vehicle known as a Doppler-on-Wheels have enabled Scott Steiger and several meteorology students to witness never-before-seen phenomena—like a line of seven tornado-like waterspouts in one recent lake-effect storm—and to collect unique data.

Scott Steiger talks to a BBC film crew.The first-of-its-kind use for the million-dollar vehicle—best known for chasing tornados in Discovery Channel programs—also has attracted local media, national scientific press and now international filmmaking attention.

A six-person British Broadcasting Corp. crew filmed Oswego’s lake-effect chasers this weekend for a planned Discovery Channel series called “23 Degrees,” a yearlong global journey in search of stories to reveal Earth’s relationship with the sun. (The title refers to the tilt of Earth’s axis in relationship to the sun.)

Director Charles Colville, physicist and presenter Helen Czerski and coworkers “enjoyed” perfect conditions for their planned segment on the prodigious snow machines that Steiger has named long-lake access-parallel (LLAP) lake-effect storms. It was a cold, busy weekend.

The crew arrived in Oswego Thursday night and spent Friday and Saturday filming an exhaustive series of scenes and interviews—including some with a helicopter—before following Steiger, Josh Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder and meteorology students as they chased the Saturday-Sunday storm that dumped up to 20 lake-effect inches on Oswego County and its neighbors.

Steiger and co-principal investigator Al Stamm, distinguished service professor and earth sciences chair, won an $86,000 National Science Foundation grant and the loan of NSF-owned equipment like the DOW, a gear-laden pickup truck called a probe to drive through the teeth of storms and “tornado pods,” small, self-contained devices to plant in the storms’ path for measuring standard weather data.

The DOW’s dual polarimetric radar—it scans vertically as well as horizontally—enables the scientists to measure the speed of descent of particles in the storm, allowing categorization and, eventually, Steiger trusts, a better tool for predicting the volume of snow and the duration of storms.

Though sleep-deprived from long nights of storm chasing, Steiger is typically enthusiastic. “The main aim is to determine the structure of these storms, and we’ve been able to gather amazing amounts of data in this snow season,” he said.

Media attention has followed the DOW nearly since it arrived in mid-December. Oswego High School students heard a talk by Steiger and toured the vehicle on Dec. 21, reporter Racquel Asa of WSYR-TV in Syracuse followed the DOW in action on Jan. 4, and a Jan. 11 NSF feature story on Oswego’s research ran on a German and a variety of U.S. websites’ science publications.

PHOTO CAPTION: Snow chase —Scott Steiger, assistant professor of meteorology, explains uses of the rolling radar and laboratory known as a Doppler-on-Wheels to Charles Colville, director, left, and Helen Czerski, physicist and presenter, of a British Broadcasting Corp. team in Oswego this weekend for a segment of an upcoming Discovery Channel series titled “23 Degrees.” 

(Posted: Jan 17, 2011)