Meteorology students aide in government-funded atmospheric research study

Victor Gensini, assistant professor for the Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences, prepares for their first launch of the weather balloon with several NIU students who helped create the balloon.

DeKALB — The Federal Aviation Association [FAA] and The National Center for Atmospheric Research [NCAR] are working with NIU meteorology students for the first time to conduct an atmospheric research study.

NCAR Associate Scientist Scott Landolt said the goal of the study is to fly a research aircraft into icing areas within certain levels of the atmosphere.

NCAR is a research center specializing in Earth system sciences sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It focuses on providing up-to-date predictions and research relating to weather, water, climate and air quality, according to its website.

Landolt said the flight program being used in the experiment has been in development for decades. He said this will be the first time the program will be able to get an aircraft in the air to validate what most of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s [UCAR]products are showing.

UCAR is a nonprofit focused on research in Earth sciences and manages the NCAR, according to its website.

Landolt said the students are contributing by conducting weather balloon launches which started Feb. 6 and will continue through March 8.

Landolt said small-engine planes are experiencing issues with icing when flying at low altitudes around this time of the year. He said this experiment is being conducted to make flying safer for the pilots flying at these altitudes and for research purposes.

Landolt said NCAR is working with many universities, such as University of Illinois, Iowa State, Valparaiso and NIU.

He said these universities were chosen because of their respectable meteorology programs, as well as being in the flight path of the research plane. 

He said the experiment will also offer an opportunity for meteorology students to learn more about the weather program.

“Not only will the students be paid to learn more about the program by conducting weather balloon launches, but they also are able to get involved with a research project going on in their neck of the woods,” Landolt said. “They will also get the chance to come out and receive a tour of the aircraft and be involved in what flight programming looks like.”

Junior meteorology major Kyle Pittman said the path to obtain a meteorology degree is not for the faint of heart and requires great discipline. Many of the program courses focus on physics and mathematics, giving students a heavy workload.

He said being able to gather valuable field experience and take a break from the books is appreciated.

“Students in the meteorology program have to spend a lot of time hitting the books and studying in order to properly grasp the material and apply the concepts we need to know,” Pittman said. “It’s refreshing to be able to get out of the classroom environment and do some hands-on work that ties to what we learn in class.”

Landolt said the weather balloons are being launched in order to develop a vertical profile of the atmospheric icing conditions for the research aircraft flight path. He said recording the profile will establish what the icing conditions are at different levels of the atmosphere, allowing the scientist to plan a proper route.

Landolt said the meteorology students play an important role by conveying the research information gathered pertaining to the vertical profile of the atmosphere to NCAR and the FAA. He said the procedure lasts around an hour, and the data from the balloon is relayed, in real time, to a computer at the university.

Landolt said the university has software to plot the data and automatically send the output image created straight to the forecasters.

“After the university’s software sends us the data, the forecasters then interpret information,” Landolt said. “The forecasters then brief the scientist and pilots with the information the weather balloon provided and make they make a decision on where to send research aircraft.”

Junior meteorology major Brent Brock said its rare for a student to have the opportunity to work with an organization such as NCAR. He said he jumped on the opportunity to be a part of the research experiment and the students getting paid is also a bonus.

“It’s awesome participating in a federal research project. Plus, it will be a great experience to throw on the ole’ resume for potential employers to see,” Brock said.