Great Lakes Meteorology Conference

Recently I was invited to speak at the Great Lakes Meteorology Conference.

Paying the great lake of Michigan a visit.. This is the southernmost tip of the lake.. So much fresh water!

This is a conference run by the Northwest Indiana chapter of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. The theme was Breaking Boundaries and Building Leaders. I have always wanted to visit Valparaiso University. It is home to the well known Python teacher and Evangelist Kevin Goebbert.  It also has a great reputation for producing graduates who end up going far in their chosen profession. One challenge for this trip: It is in the middle of a dry (alcohol free) month for me in the lead up to Barry Roubaix. Now, maintaining alcohol abstinence at home is one thing, doing so while on the road is another thing altogether. In the evenings at a hotel I love to unwind with some TV and a beer.

Valparaiso University Teaching Radar

Also, I came down with a killer cold the week before. But with the power of antihistamines and lots of vapor drops I drove on down to Indiana. I grabbed some cheap Thai on the Friday night, and relaxed with a diet Pepsi and a bag of crisps.

I am also in the middle of training for Barry Roubaix which means early mornings, which also meant I was up at 5am on Saturday morning. Great chance to explore the university town and take some photos of the Valpo teaching C-Band Dual Pol Radar! It is very notable for a University to have its own weather radar. Let alone one that does not have a graduate program. This is one thing the fascinates me. Another benefit of the University is a University town brings good businesses, notably: Coffee! A Latte later and I headed to the conference. Attending the first few talks it quickly became apparent the tone of my talk, to be delivered later in the day, was off. I planned to talk mainly on open radar science and then pivot to leadership.

Forecast exercise using historic data. These students were simulating the NWS Chicago office.

Most presentations (from very distinguished presenters) made leadership the prime focus. I had equations in my talk! My favorite part of the conference was the forecast exercise organized by the local student organization the Valparaiso University Storm Intercept Team (VUSIT). This took me back to my days at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology when I was undergoing forecaster training and we would run Real Time Displace Scenarios (RTDS) which used a program to parcel data out as it would be received by the forecast office. I even got to teach the students a little about the perils of radar doppler velocity alaising!

Your’s Truly delivering my presentation to the students.

Eventually it was time for my talk. I ended up skipping some of the science and instead focusing on how open source communities build the best leaders. I reiterated to the students that “Leader” is not a job title but a state of mind and if folks wait until they have “Leader” in their position description to display leadership qualities they probably should not be the ones “in charge”. Open source community projects are a great poster child for this point of view. The best packages (think: MetPy) are not run by high executives some where. They are managed, led and promoted by high character front line coders and developers. These developers manage to lead and orchestrate very large groups of people. Leaders to aspire to and leaders I implored these young students to use as role models.

Behind The Scenes At WTTW

Isabelle (my Daughter, 14) looking down on the Chicago Tonight studio at WTTW.

Those that have been following will know that the coincidence between my trip to Utqiagvik (which I have been mangling the pronunciation of) this blog and the cold conditions in Chicago led to some media attention. I did a very enjoyable interview on WBEZ’s Morning Edition on Tuesday. A producer at WTTW’s Chicago Tonight listened to that story and invited me on that show. Now, I have actually done a fair bit of radio over the past few years so I was well prepared and not nervous. I have also done pre-recorded TV thanks to growing up in a family well accustomed to the camera (my Dad was a Journalist, now retired) and I had the abject honor to participate in the Alan Alder Science Communications course (and me the legend himself).

This mug is made for radio.. Lucky I had Yarrow Axford to balance out the picture.

I am not going to lie: I was nervous. I am struggling right now to find a comparison, perhaps at the beginning of the Sub 5 100 mile ride I did a few years ago (which ended up being a wonderful success). I also had some key messages I wanted to get out. I needed to let folks know I was traveling with the Argonne Education team but I had to tread a fine line as the research involves kids and I could not talk about to many details.. So lots of work building some pitch perfect sound bites and then committing them to memory! How? Well, Louise, my wife and wonderful sounding board, would ask me “Why were you in Utqiagvik?” allowing me to have 10+ goes at trying different intonations of the line. I chatted with a fellow atmospheric scientist on Facebook, Victor Gensini, who reassured me that you could not find a more friendly forum than Chicago Tonight for a first foray into live TV. He was right. The team there at WTTW studios were professional, friendly warm and welcoming. Isabelle and Louise came with me to the studio and we had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with state legislators, public advocates and leaders in the City we have adopted as our own: Chicago. I was to appear next to Northwestern Paleo Climate Scientist Yarrow Axford.

The team at WTTW do a great job of making us look good!

I felt bad I did not know of her work given my appointment at NAISE. And I should have, she has done brilliant work looking at the geological record for evidence of past climate. Yarrow an I went to makeup (yes.. Makeup!! Another first) and then a lighting and framing check.. Ok, now I was NERVOUS! After that we left the studio and waited to be called. About 5 minutes into the show we went into the waiting area just off camera while a spokesperson from the ALCU was talking about the Chicago PD consent decree. She finished her interview with Paris Schutz and the cut to Brandis Friedman and Amanda Vinicky. Yarrow and I headed out to the interview desk to be wired up for sound while Amanda and Brandis did their bits. I could see the countdown for the return to Paris sitting across from us (Paris could not have been more friendly or supportive!) and all I could think is “I hope I can speak once we start! Don’t choke!”. Fortunately, the format they use on Chicago Tonight is just perfect, you sit across from the host and make eye contact with them and answer clear questions. No looking into a camera and a real human to talk to. This allowed me to ease into a dialogue  and, due to the ease Yarrow and I found on meeting, a conversation between the three of us. It all went really well. Only real flub was I found out I had been mispronouncing Utqiagvik the whole time and the locals had just been too friendly to tell me. I would like to thank Meridith Bruozas of Argonne Education who masterminded the trip, Chris Kramer of Argonne Communications who made sure everything was done right with DOE and helped me prep, Jay, Nicole and Paris at WTTW who were just plain nice and the folks of Utqiagvik who were just inspiring. The interview can be found here. Ok.. Back to normal right?? I’ve got some serious coding to catch up on!


Always Take The Weather With You: Part Two

Redeye flights are hard.

It has been a while since my last update. Things got kinda crazy as I will detail below. After a nice day enjoying the warm weather in Anchorage (knowing this will be our warmest weather for a while) we boarded out 11:35pm redeye to Denver. I don’t like red-eyes and avoid them whenever possible. It was not possible in this case and I spent the flight watching Crazy Rich Asians and trying to get any sleep I can, which was about two. After the 5 1/2 hour flight we are back in Denver where we were greeted with a glorious sunrise. The flight back to Chicago was on one of my favorite planes, the 757-300. This is the largest narrow-body (single aisle) United flies. Its like the engineers turned it up to 11 :).

I still find the sun to be novel! Amazing what a week in the dark does.

The flight from Denver was smooth and early, all you can ask for! We came in over the lake which had developed an impressive layer of ice since Left. Quick Uber ride home and the rest of the day was left to recovery. I managed to go for a walk and survived with only a 2 hour nap. We had a nice little snow system due in the area. It was one of the quick but impactful systems which produced snowfall rates up to 2 inches an hour. We got about 5 inches out of the system. I love it when kids walk to School so I am militant about clearing snow, I do about 20 houses worth of pavement, right up to where Isabelle crosses the road.

WBEZ wants to know about how I dealt with the cold in Utqiagvik. Why? Because that cold was coming to town.

After clearing on Monday morning I settled in to get some work done and, since I had missed several weekend days, get in some home brewing! This is where things got… interesting. I received an email from WBEZ’s morning Shift’s senior producer. Seems they found my Blog… Yes… THIS blog! Given that, as I said in the previous entry, we were basically riding the jet-stream back to Chicago along with a dangerous cold system, WBEZ wanted to discuss this cold, the Meteorology behind it and how we dressed for the cold in Utqiagvik, Alaska. I had done quite a few media engagements, mainly stemming from an award I received from Popular Science Magazine back in 2013. But I was yet to head into the studio to do it in person. After clearing it with our public relations team at Argonne (who are amazing and very helpful) I started writing facts and figures down about the weather we faced in Utqiagvik, what was coming to Chicago and the historical context.

As a WBEZ supporter and fan I can not tell you how exciting this was.

The interview was scheduled to be in the 9am hour so I made sure I took one Metra earlier than I needed. The temperature was already crashing and trains in Chicago do not cope so well with the cold. After an Uber from Union station this NPR Geek arrived in Public Radio Nirvana, WBEZ studios on Navy Pier. After chatting to Daniel, another producer, Meha shepherded me into the studio. Jenn White, host of the Morning Shift, was seated at a table and I could only hear her speaking.. Fortunately Meha pointed out I needed to put on the headphones to hear the radio show itself.

Wearing all my gear from Alaska in Chicago.. ALL OF IT.

The radio show was a lot of fun. Due to working with minors I could not talk about our work with the students at The Middle School and give the team due credit but we had a lot of fun talking jet streams, weather, Utqiagvik and the cold spell about to grip my adopted city of Chicago. You can find a write up of the story here. One correction though, I did not teach, The Teacher (I can not use his name) was the teacher and Meridith and John were the curriculum team (I think I have made that clear in my blog). But, everyone wants to talk about the weather and, well, I can talk. I hope the education team gets a chance to talk all about their amazing research once the work is done and published. This is my final post on my trip north! Now back to reality, the wonderful reality of an amazing job working for ARM, Argonne and the United States Department of Energy and doing amazing open science.

A Day In The Largest City In The 49th State

This is what a Man who has not seen the sun for a week looks like when he sees the sun.

We are homeward bound. We decided to have a one day buffer in Anchorage on our way back from Utqiagvik as we may have had some need to meet with Alaskan State officials and travel from the Great White can be plagued by weather delays. In the end neither materialized so we were free to spend our Saturday as our own! And boy did we get lucky. It topped out at 33F while Chicago barely topped 12F. I managed to sleep in to 6am, an accomplishment since I had been averaging between 4 and 5. Kinda stuck on Midwest time and the lack of diurnal cycle (sun cycles) means the time you get out of bed is somewhat academic.

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My route via Strava.

The thing I was, without a doubt, was seeing the sun. And the forecast was for above freezing temperatures and partly sunny. So after working on the previous blog post I grabbed an Uber and headed downtown (at 8…). I pulled up at the eclectic Side Street Espresso and had a coffee and Muffin. From there I struck out aiming to hit the Tony Knowles Coastal TrailThis trail is a gem in the crown of Anchorage! 


The trail was very icy but the scenery was stunning. I first noticed the sun as it was hitting the banks on the opposite side of the ice laden bay. The trail took a path inland to the Westchester Lagoon which was completely iced over.. There I was greeted with the amazing glow of the Sun. It was here I realized I was not made to live in the north. A visit is amazing but the sun warms and rejuvenates!

Anchorage framed by the Chugach Mountain Range.

The light, the wind and the temperature were just perfect for a photographic expedition. During my postgraduate and postdoctoral years I was passionate about my photography but I kind of let it go once I started at Argonne.

Reflecting on cloud physics.

The trip to a truly unique place (Utquigvik) motivated me to get out my old D200 body, clean it up, by a new waking around lens (18-200 DX VR, very happy!). Good news is I was not as rust as I thought! And better (and self affirming) news is my expensive camera and gear still takes a better photo than my iPhone X :). Even better, as well as providing a much needed leg stretching exercise (to keep my weight loss on track for the Barry Roubaix) the trail provided amazing view back on the city perfect for using a telephoto lens to provide perspective to the background Chugach Mountain Range.

I love planes.

But that is not the thing that kept me walking.. The trail also hugs the end of the main runway of the Ted Stevens Anchorage airport. The airport is strangely busy with heavy 747 freight planes. And the trail provides a unique vantage point to watch departing flights over the bay. I have a first class honors degree in Advanced Physics, a PhD in physical sciences and a graduate diploma in meteorology and I still marvel at these metal machines lumbering into the skies.

Water and ice shapes the land of Alaska and the peoples, native and transplanted, work with the water and ice

5 1/2 miles of walking done, time for some beer, some food and a fair degree of waiting until our 11:30 flight to Denver and then to Chicago. I have found my time in the 49th state of the union, Alaska, to be profoundly formative. I will reflect on this in full in future posts but, in short, I think no other place sees such influence by and on the atmosphere I study. Be it the snow in Anchorage or the sea ice the Iñupiat hunt on in Utqiagvik, water and ice shapes the land of Alaska and the peoples, native and transplanted, work with the water and ice. I’ll be back to this land.

Our Last Day In The Great White

Our morning walks became a ritual.

Yesterday was our last day in Utqiagvik Alaska! It has become successively both warmer and windier as our week progressed. This was interesting as the wind chill remained about the same at around -30F. So while the start of the week was all about layers and insulation the end was about exposed skin minimization and that all important shell layer. We started with what has become a ritual and a act of rebellion against the elements: Walking to School.

One of the Iñupiat values is Humor. Janet and I found it in this sign.

I did not expect to be able to do so much walking in Utqiagvik but with the right gear walking was not only possible but helped fight against the cabin fever of the near endless night. And there was something so wonderfully ridiculous about putting on 5 layers of clothing to avoid a 4 minute cab ride! Our last day came with a sense of occasion. Not just because we were heading home but also because The Teacher’s class was hitting a key point in the Curriculum that Meridith and John wrote. Today we saw more “Ah ha!” moments that we saw all week. The Teacher was working with the students to identify and describe all the Computational Thinking (CT) skills they had developed this week: Aggregation, abstraction and pattern recognition. In addition one CT tool was discussed: Interpolation. When you think of learning methods in a College course you get introduced to the name, then the concept/math and then the application.

The students own descriptions of CT Skills they used in Precipitating Change.

The Precipitating Change curriculum turns this on its head. Students are introduced to the data first, allowed to explore and interact, develop the skills and then introduced to the terms. This makes these complex terms much less daunting, as The Teacher will say: “You just did that!”. I have never seen a student at any level excitedly call out INTERPOLATION with a huge grin on her face. Let alone describe it as “Predicting a value by the values around it”. I can learn a lot about scientific communications from these 14 year olds from the Northern-most outpost of the United States.

Janet discussing her observations with the team.

The last class was, without any doubt, the most amazing. The 8th period class has made the most progress of any class however, like in any school, students progress at different rates. The amazing aspect of this class was the participation across the whole spectrum of learning styles. All students were genuinely proud of the fact they were carrying out these complex scientific CT tasks. One data point does not make a trend, but this is a data point none-the-less. After a debrief with The Teacher and an assertion that this is just the start of a long collaboration and relationship between the team at Concord, Argonne and Millersville and The Middle School, we walked back to the hotel.

The totality of the Wiley Post – Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiagvik.
The always exciting act of boarding from the tarmac/snowpack.

After near ceremonial packing of the warmest of our warm gear into our checked luggage we took the hotel shuttle to the tiny Utqiagvik airport. The airport is a one room affair with adjacent check in, security and gate in one. A quick final embrace of the Utqiagvik air and we were on board and at the start of our trek South-East to the Midwest where, Ironically, we would meet the very same airmass we experienced in the North with temperatures hovering near 0F.


Learning On Ice

Students interpolating data.

Day number four in the classroom saw students continue to develop skills in filling in data gaps and pattern recognition. We started the day with a walk to school, it was much warmer today, -10F but the wind was picking up and the snow was starting to blow, so wind chill was much more like -30F. But the great thing about wind chill is it is easier to defeat with the right gear, specifically a good shell layer. Yes, I am feeling some nice love for my gear right now!

Meridith and John.

We had a nice 2.5 hour break in our schedule at the school and hearing how vital the sea ice is to the local community and that they were already venturing out onto the ice we decided to go, very carefully, for a very short walk on some of the ice closest to shore. Note this was on our own time. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had.

It was hard to judge distances but the ice was broken about 1km out exposing the ocean. Where the warm water was open to the air it was steaming and creating a fog. Due to the North East winds it was being blown along the coast not onto it. The ice was full of structure, ridges, cracks and mounds. It was VERY solid! Following our little trip we walked back to the School for afternoon classes.

Cracking up!

We had the first class that completed the color map of temperatures and were putting terms to the activities they carried out: Aggregation, Abstraction and Pattern Recognition.I was impressed to see how many students saw that the data was showing the progression of a cold change. The students showed an ability to abstract the patterns they were seeing. Basically, students are already being introduced to the concept of frames of reference! We finished the day with dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Another homely affair. It seems like many houses have business attached, even a little coffee that seems to do a brisk business all day long in the middle of winter.  Like the crazy tourists we are we walked in the blowing snow and wind enjoying the surreal landscape of Utqiagvik!

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The surreal world of the ice

The Sun Has Come Back To The Class

The sun came up for the first time this year.

Wednesday saw our third day at the school. And it was the first time of year the sun came fully over the horizon (we had a long discussion on what “the sun coming up” meant). Again I walked to the School, for no other reason than to say I did. It was -27c but with a bit of a breeze blowing it was -34c windchill. Gear worked well but eyelashes iced up again.. Fun! Walter was kind enough to give us a failed radiosonde unit which The Teacher asked me to present to the class. I was a bit rough to begin with but after repeating it five times I got good at using it to get the students to think of the atmosphere in three dimensions.

It also allowed me to link the ARM site to them and their community and to underline the global importance of the work done there. I am hoping Argonne and ARM can build on the connections we are making in this community. Today’s lesson was about abstraction. The students had a series of numbers on a grid and were asked to see if they saw a pattern. Most could not which allowed the teacher to prompt “how can we make the patterns easier to see”. Each of the five classes arrived at the conclusion (with varying speed) that they needed to color code the numbers.

And with that 8th graders were being taught about scientific visualization! We also had the privilege of hearing more about Kevin’s time on the ice with the people of Utqiagvik.
Ice that piles up with an onshore wind (see a previous post) actually anchors this ice to shore. This is vital for the hunters in the town and also for wildlife. It was great seeing the sun come back! We even stepped outside at 1:30pm (just after sunrise) to use the light to get a group shot. School had early dismissal so we had a great hour at the  Iñupiat Heritage Center. It was great seeing how the four whaling families had passed down traditions. In fact a lot of the last names were very familiar including a previously mentioned site operator!