Students, faculty to chase lake-effect snowstorms for data

An $86,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will provide SUNY Oswego meteorology faculty member Scott Steiger and his students the tools to chase the most intense snowstorms to collect first-of-its-kind data.

Scott Steiger showcasing equipment.Steiger, who spends his summers chasing tornadoes in the Midwest, forecasts little chance that this winter will be as quiet as last. He, distinguished service professor Al Stamm and up to 14 meteorology majors who will staff the project should have plenty to study.

“This (project) is a proof of concept,” said Steiger an assistant professor as well as an alumnus of SUNY Oswego. “It’s better than a tornado project, because the chance of catching a significant tornado on the ground is quite small.”

The project seeks to demonstrate that a radar-carrying truck called a Doppler-on-Wheels can effectively capture valuable data on what Steiger has named long-lake axis parallel (LLAP) lake-effect storms—ones that can become relentless machines, dumping feet of snow over periods of days and paralyzing communities.

Steiger said the truck’s radar is dual polarimetric, meaning it emits waves that can scan vertically as well as horizontally, discerning the shape of the particles falling in a storm.

“We can do precipitation typing—raindrop, snowflake, graupel—measuring concentration and distribution of the different particles,” Steiger said. “This has never been studied specifically with lake-effect snow.”

Prime time for storms

Data gathering will run from late December to early February this season, Steiger said. Lake-effect conditions set up early in the winter, when Lake Ontario’s waters still hold summer warmth and icy cold winds blow out of the west and northwest. Data analysis and writing for the project will take place next spring and summer, followed by publication and conference presentations in Year Two of the grant.

Steiger said the most-studied lake-effect storms are wind-parallel rows (WPR)—with winds blowing across the short axis of a lake. Most research has been along the western Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan, which is oriented mainly north-south, with prevailing westerly winds. WPR storms produce more bands of lighter snow—Rochester is a target when winds are northerly—than the monsters that can develop parallel to the lakes Erie and Ontario shorelines and slam Oswego or Fulton, Watertown or the Tug Hill Plateau, he said.

The grant will provide a Doppler-on-Wheels from the NSF for the snowstorm-chasing season, and experts from Boulder, Colo., will train the students in its use in the month before startup. Jeffrey Frame of the University of Illinois, a colleague of Steiger’s on tornado studies with a lot of experience with the vehicle and instruments, is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

There will be a premium on establishing prospective sites for the radar before winter. Steiger said LLAP storms usually don’t score a direct hit on Oswego; the bands often set up north between Oswego and Watertown or south toward Fulton. The last significant LLAP event to hit Oswego was in February 2007, dumping more than five feet of snow, he said.

If the data-collection effort and results warrant, Steiger said he plans, two to five years from now, to apply for a larger grant, which would fund the use of aircraft and other instruments as well as the Doppler-on-Wheels.

PHOTO CAPTION: Snow chasing—Scott Steiger, assistant professor of meteorology at SUNY Oswego, loves chasing storms—he helped track tornadoes across the Midwest this summer—and he and students will put that love to work during Central New York’s lake-effect snowstorms. The tools will include a Doppler-on-Wheels vehicle, rear screen, and computer imagery like this one, foreground, of a January 2004 lake-effect storm whose track paralleled the Lake Ontario shoreline—the most intense kind.

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(Posted: Sep 01, 2010)

Tags: research news: faculty student collaborations