Valparaiso University’s Storm Intercept Team (VUSIT), confronts danger in pursuit of science. The team, affiliated with Valpo’s meteorology department, is a unique way for members to experience meteorology hands-on as they chase extreme weather based on their own forecasts.
According to Blake Harms, Social Chair for VUSIT, forecasts are made using data from a number of sources, including weather models on a website created by the College of DuPage. The team looks at different layers of the atmosphere and forecasts using details such as the turning of winds, moisture and lift. They then get to see how their predictions line up with professionals.
“It's really cool to be a part of making our own forecast, essentially, because the Storm Prediction Center is usually who puts out the severe weather outlooks and we don't even look at that in our discussions,” Harms said. “And while we didn't see anything last Thursday [April 11], we were in the zone that the Storm Prediction Center highlighted for the greatest tornado risk, which was pretty rewarding.”
VUSIT has an organized system for approaching storms. When on a chase, they travel in a convoy of personal vehicles following a “lead” car, which generally has a navigator. The team uses CB radios and a weather radio, and watches radar to make sure they are in the right place at the right time. The radios and iPads, which are used for watching radar, are their main equipment, but some members do bring GoPros or similar devices on a chase.
Although the team didn’t encounter storms on their last trip, Harms said it was a “great precursor” for members who will be attending a trip traveling west in the summer. The trip is part of a class where students spend 10 days following storms with the opportunity of greater visibility out west.
As storm safety goes, Harms said VUSIT follows a number of guidelines to ensure they don’t find themselves in danger. He advises having a good network of roads, not going on dirt roads, making sure to have good visibility of the storms, and having an escape route is important to that safety. Harms also mentions that it is never recommended to “core punch,” which is when storm chasers drive directly into the worst part of the storm.
“The biggest thing is knowing your situation,” Harms said.
Harms, who would follow storms at his home in Michigan, finds that VUSIT is a good way for him to continue that interest.
“It's been fantastic. And as someone who when I was younger...liked to go out and chase storms myself or try to intercept storms, it's nice to be in a group where it's more organized [and] to get to do it with people you enjoy being around,” Harms said. “People have the same interest as you and really get a lot of valuable experience about what all goes into development of severe thunderstorms, and tornadoes.”
Harms was able to see phenomena like water spouts in the West Michigan Grand Rapids area but said that overall the visibility was not the best due to the amount of trees. This area, or more specifically anywhere north of Indianapolis or south of Chicago is a “great stretch of rural lands where it's pretty easy to see for the most part,” according to Harms.
According to Harms, VUSIT likes to emphasize that students who aren’t meteorology majors can still join.
“Anyone who's at least remotely interested always reach out, come to the meetings and just kind of see if it's something because there are a lot of people who don't pursue meteorology, but still have a hobby in it,” Harms said.