Putting together a weather forecast is as much a science as an art form. The process begins with in-depth observations of past weather events, as well as taking a peek at what’s happening currently. Once that information has been collected and diagnosed, it is fed into weather models, which are used to help predict what will happen next.
It’s an art form that students in Atmospheric Science 4710 are getting to learn first-hand. Each of the 12 students enrolled in the class are forecasting upcoming weather events weekly, as part of the MU Campus Weather Forecast. The tool has been used in the past and was revamped this year.
“This is a true laboratory,” said Pat Market, professor of atmospheric science in the School of Natural Resources. “We take data, study it, research it and break it down, and make decisions based off of the data. It’s a great opportunity for our students to gain real-world experiences as undergraduates.”
There has been a unique component to this semester’s course as well. Market has two interns, a master’s student and a teaching assistant, who is working on his doctorate, who are all part of the course. It’s been an opportunity for the entire atmospheric science program at MU to work together.
“It’s difficult to get an internship in the realm of atmospheric science,” Market said. “There are only three television stations nearby. The closest weather service office is a two-hour drive. There are very few private firms – the closest of which isn’t in the state. It’s tough to find an opportunity.
“That’s why we’re really excited about the added element of this course. The internship gives our students an opportunity to gain valuable experiences. Not only that, but having a teaching assistant and a graduate student as part of the course strengthens it even more. Our undergrads may not realize it now, but this is an exciting opportunity for them.”
Adam Hirsch, an atmospheric science doctoral student in the School of Natural Resources, is serving as the teaching assistant for the course. The class is serving as his doctoral research – although the research has nothing to do with actual forecasting. Hirsch is documenting the growth of the forecaster within the classroom.
“Mizzou has a reputation of turning out forecasters who know what they’re doing,” Hirsch said. “That means there is already a strong emphasis on educating students in terms of forecasting. I’m looking at why MU is having that success.”
Hirsch said that the education side of meteorology obviously exists, but can seem a little disjointed. It is also growing in popularity. His doctorate research will be vital to showcasing what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.
“I’ve done a variety of things in atmospheric science, and I’ve learned that I enjoy the interactive side of things most,” Hirsch said. “I like to communicate what’s happening in the atmosphere with people. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and I’m hopeful to be able to share that through an academia position in the future.”
Jon Bongard is the master’s student lending his expertise to the course. Market said Bongard, an atmospheric science master’s student in the School of Natural Resources, has a gift when it comes to forecasting.
“For some people, forecasting is just second nature for them,” Market said. “Jon is in that group. I was thrilled when he said he would help out with the course.”
Bongard gravitated toward forecasting as he started to learn about the available options for those with an atmospheric science degree.
“Forecasting is never routine,” Bongard said. “I learn something new every day. The atmosphere is a fickle monster. It throws something new at you every day. It’s a cool challenge to try to figure it all out.
“Of course I want all of my forecasts to be spot on, but making a mistake isn’t always a bad thing. A mistake is an opportunity to learn. What did we do wrong? Why was our forecast not accurate? That fascination keeps me coming back.”
Bongard is working with Neil Fox, a professor of atmospheric science, for his master’s work. The research centers on studying evaporation. They are using a radar-based system, as well weather balloons, to quantify the evaporation of the rain as it falls from the cloud. They’re looking at what happens before it hits the surface.
“I’m using the forecasts being made in this class and deciding when to fly weather balloons,” Bongard said. “If they’re forecasting a can’t-miss event, we’ll go out and fly a balloon.”
Bongard’s work, and the course as a whole, showcases how closely the three professors in atmospheric science – Market, Fox and Tony Lupo – work together.
“That trio all bring something different to the table,” Bongard said. “Dr. Market is the synoptician, Dr. Fox is the radar guru, and Dr. Lupo is a math wizard. All of those powers combined make a perfect meteorologist.
“While we only have three professors, I’ve found it extremely beneficial. I’m on a first-name basis with each of them. The fact that Adam’s work has relevance to what I’m doing is really unique.”
Paula Sumrall and Caleb Brown, both seniors in atmospheric science, earned the internship this semester. The students in the course are at the beginning stages of forecasting. Sumrall and Brown are helping guide the students along, as both have participated in the course before.
“I like to throw the students a few curveballs, just to make them think outside of the box,” Sumrall said. “I want to challenge them. You can’t just say a weather event is going to happen. You have to get to the ‘why’ of it.”
Sumrall added that the course is incredibly important in terms of offering a deeper look at a possible job opportunity in atmospheric science. It’s common for many atmospheric science students to have had a passion for the weather since childhood – with a big draw being storm chasing or live broadcasting. Sumrall said it’s important to get the full experience.
“All I ever wanted to do was storm chase – and I still love chasing storms,” Sumrall said. “But it’s difficult to make a career of it. There are still plenty of awesome things to do involving weather. You don’t have to be on TV or work for the weather service. There are a lot of options out there.”