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Owensboro Student and Team Return from Spring Tornado Chasing Experience

During the May 2011 summer term, Dr. Josh Durkee, Dr. Grady Dixon and eight meteorology students, including Owensboro’s Olivia Payne, traveled more than 7,200 miles across 12 states for another season of forecasting and verifying severe weather across the Great Plains. As with the previous year, the group was quite successful in its mission.

Students in the WKU storm chasers course stopped May 24 near Lyons, Kan., for a group photo. From left are Dustin Jordan of Seymour, Tenn., Mitchell Gaines of Bowling Green, Nathaniel Shearer of Berea, Lindsay Rice of Delmont, PA., Lee Campbell of Paducah, Kyle Berry of Mt. Washington, Kate Wilson of Bowling Green and Olivia Payne from Owensboro.

This was the second year that Dr. Durkee’s Field Methods in Weather Analysis and Forecasting class was offered at WKU, which won the 2010 “Creativity and Innovation Award” from the North American Association for Summer Programs.

The purpose of the class is to provide meteorology students a capstone learning experience through accurate prediction of the location and timing of severe convective storms, and driving to the threat area in time to verify the forecast. In addition to providing the students with this extraordinary unique learning experience, another goal for the class was to give back to the communities affected by these severe weather events by serving as certified storm spotters. In the event of a funnel cloud, tornado and damaging wind or hail, the group would report these eyewitness accounts so that the communities threatened by these dangerous weather phenomena could seek proper safety measures.

Each day the students began by analyzing weather data and presenting their forecasts to the group. Dr. Durkee and Dr. Dixon would mentor the students through the forecast analysis and together, the group would decide on a target area.

“The daily routine of this class is unlike any other,” Dr. Durkee said. “When we wake up, the only concerns are the areas with greatest hazardous potential for severe weather and we drive to it. We were never exactly sure when and where we could stop to get a bite to eat. We often ate dinner around 10:30 p.m.  We also never knew where we would end up spending the night. It really depends on the severe weather that is taking place at that time.”

Overall, Dr. Durkee’s cohort of severe weather forecasters traveled 7,238 miles (a distance nearly 400 miles greater than a roundtrip drive between Bowling Green and Juneau, Alaska) across 12 states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa and Illinois) during May 18-June 1, and witnessed numerous supercell thunderstorms with tornadic circulations. The most notable storm the group encountered included the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., which is the single deadliest tornado on record.

Dr. Durkee is already putting plans together for the course next year.  In the meantime, you can read the daily student blog entries and view more photos from their journey at

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