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Tales of a storm chaser

Senior meteorology major Nick Engerer has long marveled at the power and beauty of storms. With the help of two nationally competitive awards, he devoted his summer to analyzing their capricious ways and even tracking them down.

Sept. 12, 2007
By Anita Martin

Nick Engerer found himself trapped in a car on a long dirt road this summer near Orienta, Okla., as tornado after tornado dropped out of the sky -- most of them about a half-mile away. 

But what might traumatize the standard motorist exhilarated Engerer, a senior meteorology major and Hollings Scholar who spent the summer studying storm environments for the National Severe Storms Laboratory. 

The lab -- located in Norman, Okla., the heart of Tornado Alley -- gave Engerer the opportunity to study how lines of intense thunderstorms affect factors such as air pressure and temperature. Using archived data and radar images gathered by 110 automated weather stations across Oklahoma, Engerer helped determine what can be expected when severe weather events move over the Great Plains. He conducted the largest such study ever done, in terms of both number of storms sampled and volume of data.

"This (study) is on the forefront, and I have made new discoveries, which is pretty cool," Engerer said. "For instance, the pressure and temperature changes that occur are much greater than was previously thought."

Growing up in northeast Ohio, Nick experienced his share of severe weather, but never enough to satisfy his interest. "I've always delighted in watching a thunderstorm roll in and have always put other activities on hold whenever such an opportunity presented itself," he said.

Engerer and other interns chased storms during their free time. First they consulted with forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, and while on the chase, Engerer checked radar and satellite images through his cell phone.

"By looking at current conditions and weather models, and with a little intuition, you pick the location you are going to travel to," he said. "This is the most difficult part of the process, but if you pick the right region, you can quickly move to any promising storm activity."

Engerer chased for recreation and posterity (see links to his photos and videos below).  His harrowing first tornado rendezvous came on June 13, when he and three other interns watched several dark cyclones spiral down from the clouds, one of which literally crossed the road in front of them. Since some people chase for years without glimpsing a tornado, Engerer considers himself lucky to have caught these on video during only his third chase.

"It was the most amazing weather experience of my life," he said. "It reaffirmed that this is what I want to spend my life researching." Engerer hopes to return to Norman to attend Oklahoma University for graduate school and take advantage of both high-end research facilities and opportunities for more storm-chasing adventures.

He previously worked as both a weather coordinator for WOUB-TV in Athens and as a forecaster for Scalia Laboratory, where he serves as the weather systems administrator this year. After his education at Ohio University, he plans to continue down the track of professional research meteorology.

"Although broadcast meteorologists have a challenging profession, research meteorologists are able to spend more of their time on the science and are able to pursue more diverse topics with more depth over their career," said Professor of Geography Dorothy Sack, Engerer's academic advisor.

Sack met Engerer when he took her Geography 101 class during his first year at Ohio University. "Although it was a class of about 120 students, Nick stood out as a student who paid intense attention in class, asked thought-provoking questions and offered excellent comments," Sack said. "He would come up to me after class and ask about things meteorological. He helped make the class better for everyone."

This past year, Engerer won two nationally competitive awards: the Mark J. Schroeder Scholarship from the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association AccuWeather Undergraduate Scholarship in Meteorology. He also enters the second year of his National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship.

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