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NIU Meteorology Students Launching Weather Balloons

Northern Illinois University

When people hear the word "meteorology," the first thing that often comes to mind is TV weathermen.

A key aspect of meteorology is studying atmospheric patterns to accurately predict the weather. But NIU professor Victor Gensini says there is much more to the field.

"After you get a meteorology degree, you're a broadly trained critical thinker," he said. "You have skills in physics, in mathematics, in computer science, in programming."

This versatility is one reason why the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) reached out to Gensini's department about a cold weather study.

Credit Chase Cavanaugh
Graduate students Cody Converse (left) and Robert Fritzen (right) coordinate weather balloon launches for NIU professor Victor Gensini (center)

"They knew we had a meteorology program and said, 'Hey, are you guys interested in participating in this ICICLE field campaign?' I think it was one of those emails where it was an immediate 'Yes, how can we help?'" Gensini said.

ICICLE is short for In Cloud Icing and Large-Drop Experiment. An airplane flies out of Rockford to scan the skies around Great Lakes and plains states. Its instruments scan for locations where ice is likely to form on other aircraft. But NCAR needs to know when the sky will be cold enough to get the most out of the plane's instruments. To get these readings, they call people like NIU graduate student Cody Converse.

"And then we put together a team of undergraduate students and ourselves to go perform a launch for their request," he said.

Converse says each balloon has an instrument at the bottom called a radiosonde.

"As the balloon rises through the atmosphere, that little radiosonde takes measurements every 10 seconds for the launches we do," he said. "We read all those data and then, using these GPS coordinates, we can track not only the location of the radiosonde but we can calculate the wind speed and the wind direction with altitude."

NCAR is sent these radiosonde readings, which it then uses to plot a course for their research airplane. NIU is one of several universities launching these balloons but a Doctoral student, Robert Fritzen, thinks their data is given a bit more weight due to DeKalb's close location.

The project is overseen by the professor, his graduate students, and about 16 undergrads. Fritzen says participation in ICICLE helps spur him to dive even deeper into his subject.

"I've always had a fascination with weather and then when I came to graduate school, I actually got to do a research project on weather, and I've been hooked to it ever since," he said. "Researching new phenomena, understanding the things we don't know about the atmosphere -- I want to dig deeper."

Gensini says NIU is the oldest university in the state that offers a meteorology specialization and the only one north of Interstate 80. He says many graduates move on to broadcast work, join the National Weather Service, or conduct studies at national labs. But Gensini says that's far from the only career option available.

"A lot of them go to the private sector and work for either startup firms or firms like insurance companies and reinsurance companies that focus on things like catastrophe modeling," he said.

Gensini says meteorology majors studying extreme weather events can also share a common passion as researchers or excitable weather forecasters.

"It's like being a little kid at Christmas, watching the weather observations come in when we get those sorts of events," he said.

NCAR wraps up the ICICLE study March 6 and will use its findings to determine safe times for planes to fly in the winter. But Professor Gensini says there will always be a need for meteorological expertise.

"Every time we walk out the door, we go outside, we're all being influenced by weather," he said. "I think companies are seeing the importance of hiring meteorologists and that's why I think they'll continue to be in demand as we go forward over the next 15-20 years."

He says that will continue to be true with the increased focus on global warming.