In the off-season for tornadoes, Stony Brook University is not letting a tool of the trade for storm chasers sit idle.
A program sponsored by the National Science Foundation has lent a large mobile Doppler radar for tracking severe weather to SBU until next week.
The big truck-mounted receiver travels to any university or college that requests its use when it's not otherwise occupied. Students can learn how to use the Doppler radar information while scientists can look at what's brewing on the horizon.
"During the off-season, it's used heavily for educational outreach," said Rachel Humphrey, a support scientist and data manager for the Center for Severe Weather Research of Boulder, Colo. She drove the Doppler truck more than 1,800 miles from Boulder to Long Island for the SBU loan.
While Long Island is not typically known for tornadoes, there are local weather phenomena worth studying, said Brian Colle, SBU professor of atmospheric sciences.
He stood next to the big radar on a recent day during which rain gave way to sunshine. "They took it to Cedar Beach today to track the storm," he said of the scientists who accompanied the radar. "The chances of getting a hurricane are rare, but we'll be studying sea breezes," he said.
SBU junior Michael Colbert of Lindenhurst, a meteorology major and president of the school's meteorology club, said the radar will check out impacts on areas such as New York City. "We can see how weather affects a more densely populated area," he said.
The school held an open house last week for the public and students to check out the radar truck. SBU lab technician Tracey Evans, who works in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Studies, stood in the parking lot waiting to climb into the truck's cab, where computer screens displayed weather systems moving across the region.
She said the coolest part of the Doppler truck is its ability "to get the up-close data . . . so you can predict where the storms will form."
In conjunction with the Doppler radar loan, SBU also held a seminar last week featuring Joshua Wurman and Karen Kosiba, atmospheric scientists who used to host "Storm Chasers" on the Discovery Channel.
Wurman said the challenge of working in an area like Long Island was getting away from view-blocking development. "The main thing is a clear view of the horizon," he said.
Colle said he is familiar with the Doppler system, but it's thrilling to see up close. "I use Doppler radar data all the time but this is my first time dealing with a radar truck," he said. "It's nice that it's mobile -- we can take it around and it's easier than flying an airplane."
The educational benefits to students of having an actual Doppler radar to use are obvious, Humphrey said. "Nothing makes the lightbulbs turn on like hands-on experience," she said. "It's nice to see where the data's coming from."