Question: What would five students from Magdalena do if they had a free week at the end of the spring semester?
Answer: Go tornado hunting.
The five students, along with a teacher and a storm chaser from New Mexico Tech, spent six days and covered 2,500 miles on such a hunt. The trip was headed by Magdalena Schools AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor Seth Price, who has been storm chasing for several years, and teacher Catherine Aragon.
Price, a Lab Associate in the Chemical Engineering Department, said he has been fascinated with tornados for most of his life and is past president of a storm chasing club at Tech.
“Major goals (for the trip) were to teach students about severe weather and the history and geography of the Great Plains,” Price said. “Some of these kids had never been that far away from home.”
He said he was expanding his AVID class at Magdalena to take in more math and science last year, “and starting last summer the idea of taking students on a storm chasing trip began to take shape.”
This spring he posed the idea to Principal Leslie Clark. “You know we’ve got some kids that are more advanced than many other students,” he told her. “We need to pull them out and do something separate with them so we don’t lose them, and keep them interested in science.”
Clark agreed. So from April 29 through May 4, the students – Andres Murillo, Catrina Otero, Liam Ryan, Maiah Sager and Lazarus Sanchez – were on the road.
Severe weather was predicted and pursued in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The team found one funnel cloud but no tornadoes.
“We saw pea-sized hail on several occasions in various states,” Price said.
But the trip wasn’t in vain, according to junior Lazarus Sanchez.
“We learned how storms worked, what they’re going to look like...should they start by putting out rain or hail, or just going to dissipate,” Lazarus said.
He said the two biggest indicators are temperature changes in the wind, like a cold breeze followed by a warm one a few seconds later.
“Another would be if the clouds are stacked high, like towering” Lazarus said. “We are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
The closest they came to seeing a tornado was in Oklahoma.
“It’s looked like a funnel was about to come down, but it never quite made it,” Lazarus said.
Price said the thing for him is the challenge of predicting where a tornado has the best chance of developing, which could be in eastern Colorado, or as far away as North Dakota or Louisiana.
Another student, senior Liam Ryan agreed. He said the trip raised his awareness of how complicated predicting the weather could be.
“I didn’t have much interest in meteorology before but definitely it did give me an interest in it,” Liam said. “All the interesting complexities and stuff that are involved with that. There is a lot of advanced work in meteorology. (The trip) gave me an appreciation for it.”
“We would all meet in the morning and look at various radars, various predictions for the day from different institutions, and then decide what the most likely area would be that could produce tornadoes,” Liam said. “Then just go in that general direction and then wait for the predictions to be more accurate.”
“We saw some storms that could’ve produced tornadoes, but unfortunately none of them did,” Liam said. “In our case it was just a lot warmer than it should’ve been, in the upper layers of the atmosphere. It’s supposed to be cold near the top, and it wasn’t cold enough.”
“That’s the best we could do,” Lazarus said. “Educated predictions.”
Every morning the team would check in with the Storm Prediction Center.
“What you try to do is get up in the morning and figure out where you need to be by six that afternoon,” Price said. “We’re looking at about one third of the United States. The challenge is, can I make a forecast, and then follow through with it and see if it was right.”
Price made sure the team would be familiar with the damage tornadoes can cause.
“I showed the students photos of Greensburg, Kansas, taken after a 2007 tornado,” Price said. “We made a lap through town and saw how the town had recovered. An occasional empty lot or bare foundation served as a reminder of the devastation that occurred there.”
He said this is lowest year for tornadoes since 1980.
“Only 1988 and 2009 had fewer,” Price said. “Severe storms require instability, moisture, shear and lift and right now Western Oklahoma is in major drought. No rain.”
Further down the road in Pratt, Kansas, he said, “everyone had their first Casey’s Donut. This is an important Great Plains Storm Chase ritual, and I was glad the students could participate.”
Other short side trips included the World’s Largest Czech Egg in Kansas and Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo.
On the last day, “we drove from Amarillo to Magdalena,” Price said. “We left behind no reachable storms. Otherwise, our travel was uneventful, perhaps even a little blue as we returned home.
“Some times were spent searching for odd cloud features, and others were spent scrambling to return to the vehicle before the strong winds hit,” he said. “Overall, I think we had a good and productive time.”
Both Liam and Lazarus said they would like to go out again.
Lazarus added, “Make sure you put in (the article): ‘what happens on the trip, stays on the trip.’”