Inside UNC Asheville: Following the Tornado’s Path with Atmospheric Sciences

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Chase Graham and Tyler Moore in Jacksonville, Alabama.

“I am a total weather nerd,” said recent atmospheric sciences graduate Chase Graham. As a kid watching the Weather Channel, Graham said he was always fascinated by what he saw. “I always thought one day, I want to be out there chasing the storms.”

Graham got his chance on a special field experience course taught by Christopher Godfrey, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and Elaine Godfrey, adjunct professor of atmospheric sciences, when the class traveled to Tornado Alley for the hands-on experience of chasing extreme weather.

“That was the first time I ever saw a tornado in person,” Graham said. “Dr. Godfrey bought us all dinner at IHOP afterwards. He said, ‘it’s your first time seeing tornadoes, it’s a special occasion...We’re buying you all pancakes.’”

But it was the aftermath of a tornado that brought Godfrey, Graham, and his classmate Tyler Moore, to Jacksonville, Alabama early in the spring semester of 2018. This time, their trip was all about the data.

On March 19, a mile-wide tornado tore through Alabama, fortunately only injuring four, but causing enormous damage.

“I had seen tornado damage before, but not on the same scale,” Graham said. “We stood right in the middle of the tornado damage, and in all directions, all you could see was destroyed trees, houses with parts of their roofs torn off.”Tyler Moore and Chase Graham survey tornado damage in Jacksonville.

The team’s goal was to gather data on structural damage, as well as tree fall data, and assess the damage as accurately as possible. The data they collected will help Godfrey and other scientists to improve upon the EF (Enhanced Fujita) scale, which is the scale used to measure tornado damage.

“It was almost like a puzzle piece,” Moore said. “You’re trying to mentally recreate how this tornado ripped the neighborhood apart.

“The more we can understand about the dynamics of the tornado, how a tornado vortex works, the more we feel like we can better inform and make the public aware of the damage a tornado can cause,” Graham explained.

Gathering and assessing this information can help the public understand which houses or architecture styles can best withstand the high speed of tornado winds and which trees pose the greatest risk to those structures.

Whether it’s chasing twisters across the Great Plains or standing in the path of a tornado’s destruction measuring fallen trees, hands-on experiences like these prepare atmospheric sciences students for the real-world jobs they’ll be taking on after graduation. Or, in Moore’s case, the real-world internships they’ll take on during summer break.

Soon Moore will be completing an internship with CNN’s weather department—a great step towards his career goal in the broadcast field.

“I feel like a lot of us have this little bug inside us where we all loved the weather at a young age, we’re fascinated by it,” Moore said. “I always wanted to chase thunderstorms, and I always wanted to see a tornado.”

“Coming here, and understanding everything by studying it through classes, and being able to apply that to research is very cool.”

For more information about studying atmospheric sciences at UNC Asheville, visit the Department of Atmospheric Sciences webpage