Nicole Loeb will never forget where she was or what she was doing just over a month ago.
June 28 was a hot, humid day, and Loeb — along with 11 other students and a team of instructors — were piled into vans en route to Iowa, in pursuit of a storm. Loeb and her fellow students are from the 2017 class of Severe Thunderstorms: Storm Chasing and Field Techniques, Canada’s only for-credit storm-chasing course, helmed by Prof. John Hanesiak and offered through the University of Manitoba’s Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources.
They had started their day in central Nebraska. Every morning of the week-long field trip, the crew would assemble in the hotel lobby or breakfast area and, fuelled by paper cups of coffee, sketch out the day to come.
"We’d get into groups and we’d each present where we thought the storms of the day would be, and why," says Loeb, 22, a fourth-year atmospheric science student at U of M, earning her bachelor of science in physical geography.
"The analysis looked pretty good, but it wasn’t obvious that it was going to be a big day."
The forecast took them east, to Iowa. "When we crossed the border, we were kind of in the middle of hills — and when we’d catch a glimpse of what was going on, it just looked better and better," she says.
"All of a sudden, we were like, ‘We need to stop and watch this storm.’ Right when we stopped, the rotation tightened up and put down the first tornado. Mother Nature put on a show for us, that’s for sure."
Hanesiak’s team saw at least two of the 26 tornadoes that ripped through the Midwestern U.S. that day.
"We saw pretty much everything one would wish to see on a trip like this," says Hanesiak, who has been taking students on this once-in-a-lifetime field trip roughly every other year since 2005.
"Every type of supercell storm — low precipitation, classic and high precipitation. One of the best ‘gustnadoes’ I have ever seen, amazing storm structures, experiencing various inflows and outflows, hail, nice shelf clouds and, of course, tornadoes — two at least, maybe three. The best part was that we did this all very safely."
Indeed, safety is the first priority for Hanesiak, a veteran storm chaser and trained meteorologist, and his fellow instructors Pat McCarthy and Jay Anderson, who are both retired severe weather forecasters, and Dave Carlsen and Justin Hobson, who both currently work with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
"The instructors are very intelligent and know what they’re doing," Loeb says. "I never felt like we were put into a situation where we were unsafe."
There are 13 lectures in the course that set students up with meteorological tools and analytical skills. The field trip allows them to put those new skills to work. The course takes them, quite literally, wherever the wind blows; this year’s class drove 5,000 kilometres in six days in pursuit of severe weather, chasing storms in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri — several of the states that make up Tornado Alley in the U.S.
Hanesiak believes there is something to be learned from every storm. While severe weather forecasting technology has improved significantly, having human eyes on the ground remains an invaluable tool.
"In terms of the science, every storm is different," Hanesiak says. "The course and field trip allows us to better understand why storms are different and why some produce more extreme weather than others. In terms of education, for the atmospheric science students who will go onto a career in meteorology, they all say it is the best course they have taken. It allows them to pull together all of their previous knowledge from other courses together with this course, and apply it all to real weather situations. When they sit behind the weather forecasting desk, they will remember this experience and apply it every day."
Loeb agrees, saying her knowledge was put into perspective. "I think it’s important for people who are going to be forecasting or putting out watches and warnings to get experience like this," she says. "You can have all the background information, but it’s totally different to make the forecast and watch it actually happen and see why what you thought was going to happen is happening — or is not happening."
Loeb — whose favourite movie is Twister, naturally — had never seen a tornado in person before that day in Iowa.
"It was really exciting," she says. "And it was great because it was in a field, there was no major damage reported. To actually see one in real life and watch it develop was really cool. I felt like I learned a lot."
The U of M storm-chasing course isn’t just for students. It’s also open to the public. This year’s group was split between credit and non-credit students.
Dr. Christine Polimeni, a community family physician and vice-dean of Continuing Competency & Assessment at the University of Manitoba, was one such non-credit student. She has known Hanesiak for years, and his course appealed to her as both a weather buff and a continuing educator.
"This was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and I will remember it fondly. It was fascinating," she says. "The fact that we got to see tornadoes and almost everything you can imagine on the storm chaser’s checklist — the course exceeded expectations."
She also vividly recalls that day in Iowa. "We rolled up into a new area to see the storm from a different vantage point and this lady came to the bottom of her driveway because all of a sudden three vans had pulled up and she said, ‘I lived here my whole life and this is the first tornado I’ve ever seen,’" Polimeni recalls. "You saw the worry in her eyes, because her daughter and grandchild lived in a town that was in the path of the tornado."
Polimeni, who is in her early 50s, had also never seen a tornado until that day.
"For me, seeing the tornado come down — I was truly in awe of how powerful and beautiful a storm can be," she says. "When it touched down, I was taken aback by how such incredible things in nature can have such dire consequences."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.