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UW Graduate Student Chases Storms

September 18, 2015
woman in the cockpit of an ainplane
Dana Mueller, a UW master’s student in atmospheric science, sits in the cockpit of King Air, UW’s research aircraft. Mueller participated in a summer research project that explored how thunderstorms form at night in the southern Great Plains. (Dana Mueller Photo)

Storms in the Great Plains have the potential for massive destruction and can endanger many residents of those areas. Dana Mueller’s research might just help keep those people safer in the future.

Mueller, from Fort Collins, Colo., is a master’s student in atmospheric science at the University of Wyoming. She recently participated in the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (PECAN) project, a multimillion-dollar research project, which involved 14 universities and eight research laboratories. The goal of last summer’s research was to explore how thunderstorms form at night in the southern Great Plains.

Researchers hope the project will provide a greater understanding of how these storms are initiated and maintained during the night, as well as yield more data that can help forecasters improve warning times.

Some factors that impact night storms are nocturnal, low-level jet streams of wind about 1,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about what we know about nocturnal storm systems in the Great Plains,” Mueller says. “It’s a totally different ballgame versus the daytime. These systems are associated with flash flooding, severe winds, hail and lightning. There’s a lot we don’t know and being able to forecast that more accurately will help with the safety of the people of the Great Plains. Agriculture also uses this summer rain, so farmers can plan for crops.”

The $13.5 million project, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, also involves participation from the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Association, NASA and the Department of Energy.

Bart Geerts, UW Department of Atmospheric Science professor, led the project, along with David Parsons, director of the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. Zhien Wang, a UW professor of atmospheric science and the Templeton Faculty Fellow, and Tom Parish, a UW professor and department head of atmospheric science, served as the project’s co-principal investigators.

The research was conducted in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma during June and July 2015, and used UW’s research aircraft, King Air, which is equipped with Raman Lidar.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be a part of this,” Mueller says. “I was in awe of the level of dedication people have to this. There are long hours every day and little sleep. But we were all just so excited to find out what we could. Learning about the process of going through a field campaign was invaluable.”

Mueller was heavily involved in two components of the project. In June, she served as the King Air coordinator at the operations center in Hays, Kan. She worked with mission scientists and investigators, and coordinated King Air’s mission for that day. She coordinated King Air activities and provided ground support for the mission via chat while the plane was airborne.

In July, she was in Great Bend, Kan., with the King Air crew as the flight scientist, occupying the co-pilot seat. Mueller helped determined which flight levels were appropriate for the weather patterns using real-time displays in the aircraft.

“Dana was indispensable in the field,” Geerts says. “As a flight coordinator in the PECAN operations center, and as flight scientist in the King Air cockpit, she directed the pilot in the dark in search of invisible deep bore waves that sometimes emerge from massive thunderstorms, which is the topic of her master’s research.”

The King Air flew ahead of storms to gather data for the other two aircraft involved in the project and to collect information on bores -- gravity waves that emanate from storm systems.

“There are things the people in the operations center could tell us, but there were things that we had more control over because we could see it out the window,” Mueller says. “It was good to see firsthand how data are collected and are used.”

When the data are available in a few months, Mueller will use the findings to finish her thesis, which focuses on the King Air’s lidar observations to investigate the evolution and vertical structure of bores.

She will graduate next spring.

“My current interest is the application of atmospheric science to other fields and industries, particularly aviation,” she says. “I would like to find employment in the private sector after graduation. I would be interested in working in aviation weather.”

Mueller was a 2014 American Meteorological Society fellowship recipient awarded to just eight students during the year. She had many options for graduate school after earning an undergraduate degree in meteorology with minors in mathematics and general business (2014) from the University of Oklahoma, but chose the opportunities that came at UW.

“I was just drawn by the opportunity to be involved firsthand in my own research, not just getting a data set that was acquired years ago,” she says. “I wanted to have the opportunity to be on the aircraft because it’s such a rare platform. Many other universities don’t have anything like that.”

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