Greetings from the MPEX Field Campaign

By Logan Dawson, SOARS Protégé​​

This is my third summer as a SOARS protégé, and my experience has already been quite different than in the past. That’s because I am working on a field campaign this summer.

After my first year of graduate school at Purdue University, I arrived in Boulder, Colorado, for the start of the Mesoscale Predictability Experiment (MPEX). The main goal of this NSF-funded field campaign is to investigate whether more weather observations can lead to better predictions of severe thunderstorms.

Thunderstorm over a field
Afternoon thunderstorms are common this time of year in the central and western United States.
Credit: UCAR/Carlye Calvin

A field campaign is a large group project where scientists go away from their labs “into the field” to make measurements. Scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL); Purdue University; Colorado State University; University at Albany, State University of New York; and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee are collaborating on this project. My PhD advisor, Dr. Jeff Trapp, one of the principal investigators (PIs) for MPEX, invited me to be a part of the campaign. My SOARS research mentor, Dr. Glen Romine, is also a PI for the experiment.

A few mornings a week, a research airplane, the NSF/NCAR Gulfstream V, flies over the western United States gathering detailed observations of upper-level atmospheric disturbances that may affect when and where thunderstorms form in the afternoon. These disturbances are sampled using dropsondes, which are instruments dropped from the aircraft to measure temperature, humidity, pressure and winds.

Later in the day, teams on the ground launch balloons that carry similar instruments up into the atmosphere. These are called upsondes and are used to sample the environment where storms are expected to form and the environment surrounding active thunderstorms. The dropsonde and upsonde data will be incorporated into forecast models to determine if these observations help us better predict thunderstorms. The upsonde data will also be used to better understand how mature thunderstorms modify their environments.

So far, I’ve assisted with forecasting and nowcasting for MPEX. To forecast, we use observed satellite imagery and model forecasts to identify upper-level disturbances that may influence where thunderstorms form on the next day. We also provide a summary of when and where convection is expected so the ground teams can plan accordingly. Nowcasting occurs during the afternoon and evening hours when the ground teams are launching balloons. I assist another PhD student, providing information to the ground teams about how storms are evolving, especially when weather conditions are becoming severe.

I’ve learned a great deal about conditions that impact thunderstorm development and evolution in the week I’ve worked on MPEX. I don’t know that I would have gained some of this knowledge without this wonderful out-of-the-classroom experience. Also, just being in the same room during daily briefings with scientists who are legen…wait for it…dary in their fields is quite inspiring! I’m looking forward to learning more, especially when I head out into the field in a few days.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts about my experiences in Boulder and from the field!

Logan Dawson
Logan Dawson is a third-year SOARS protégé and a graduate student studying atmospheric science at Purdue University.