UNIONTOWN, Pennsylvania — There are many months to go before California University of Pennsylvania students have the chance to chase storms during tornado season in the High Plains this spring.
But they were able to get a jump start on their learning, as storm chaser P. Grady Dixon visited the campus recently to speak to Meteorology Club students about the science of tornadoes.
"We take students out storm chasing every May as part of our Earth Sciences field course," said Chad Kauffman, Cal U professor with the meteorology program. "He (Dixon) asked if he could come in and speak to students about his university and his experience in storm chasing over the years. I thought that it's nice to hear from a different perspective — to show there are others who do storm chasing."
An expert in physical geography and meteorology, Dixon is chairman of the Department of Geosciences at Fort Hays State University, in Kansas. Dixon earned a Bachelor of Science in Geosciences from Mississippi State University, a Master of Science in Geography from the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in Geography from Arizona State University.
Dixon has appeared on CNN and The Weather Channel. His most recent research has focused on the effects of weather on human health and mortality, weather and climate effects on wildlife behavior, and tornado climatology.
"Believe it or not, what I study most commonly in that area is weather effects on suicide rates," Dixon said.
"A lot of other research I've done is related to extreme heat and extreme cold. But suicide is the odd thing I've studied. It's very seasonal in that almost everywhere in the world, suicides peak in the spring and summer, which is surprising."
"And the other thing we're just now starting to find, is that when the temperature is warmer than it should be — warmer than it should be for the season — suicide rates tend to go up. And we don't have a clue why," he said. Dixon is in the process of finding collaborators to continue research on the topic.
Dixon has worked with Kauffman in the past, as well as Cal U students. He said finding professors and students from other universities is a fun part of the job.
"I love this stuff. This is what makes our job great — to be able to go in and see different departments, and to see how similar and different they are," Dixon said.
Dixon's talk was titled, "Hail and Deer, and several other answers to your questions about storm chasing."
He revealed that hail and deer are actually more dangerous than the tornado itself.
"Hail scares me more than almost anything," Dixon said. "Lightning scares me, but it's very easy to not be get struck by lightning. Hail is a little more difficult to avoid. Hail will end your trip immediately. It knocks out windows, and could cause injury. It can be enormous in the Great Plains."
Hail also makes driving dangerous.
"It covers the road. If you come across it, not knowing it's there, it's just like driving on ice," he said.
Deer are also a danger.
"They are everywhere out there," he said. "Wildlife will jump in front of you, so you have to be extra sharp."
Out of all the questions Dixon receives, one that comes up quite frequently is "how close do you get?"
"The answer is never impressive," he said. "I don't get close. If you're getting close, you're just seeing stuff get blown around.
"If you are truly out there to learn about the storm, you want to see the whole thing spinning. You want to understand how the air is blowing in and flowing out. The storm structure can be artistic and educational."
He said another reason to stay far away is to avoid death or injury.
"There is nothing honorable or sexy about dying from a tornado. It is a barbaric way to die," he said.
Therefore, he said, experience is paramount.
Today, smartphones have made it extremely easy for people who read weather radar.
They take that information, and with no experience, try their hand at storm chasing — but, Dixon said, he would never advise someone to do that.
"It's almost too easy to do it today," he said. "Someone with very little education and experience can put themselves in front of a tornado, but the phone doesn't tell you how to get out of the way. The radar tells you what is already happening. It doesn't tell you what is about to happen, which is the scary part."
He said it's necessary to go with someone who has been storm chasing for years.
"The way we did it in the early days, was you were very conservative, you stayed far away, and you went with someone who had more experience than you," Dixon said.
"You watched them, and you learned from them. And that's the best thing. I would never want anybody to go alone, or to lead a trip, without doing it for at least five years or more. That practice and experience is very important."
Information from: Herald-Standard, http://www.heraldstandard.com/
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