Student - September 25, 2008

TRAINEE HUNTS DOWN HURRICANES

Weather extremes, Rutger Boonstra loves them. Already did as a kid. In fact, it's the only reason why he is studying meteorology in Wageningen. In his own country, not much is happening in that area. At best, the occasional autum storm. Barely worth mentioning. But boy, did he get lucky during his traineeship. As any true storm chaser, the student from Wageningen has visited the eyes of the hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Galvaston Island after Ike.
Sheer coincidence, though. Of course, Boonstra did try to incorporate extreme weather into his traineeship. He even asked his idol Josh Wurman, pioneer in the area of tornadoes and hurricanes. Anyone who often watches Discovery Channel, will know the fearless Wurman who enjoys taking his equipment right into the eyes of hurricanes and tornadoes.
But Boonstra had to make do with a spot at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is currently studying radar data of the Alps. ‘Yeah, sounds funny, eh? My German supervisor took those data with her from Germany. We are studying how thunderstorms develop in the Alps. During certain wind regimes, those thunderstorms can be very heavy. That is something we would like to know more about.’
As it happens, Boulder is also where Wurman’s managing his Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR). Then lady luck stepped in. The supervisor turned out to know Wurman pretty well. She arranged a meeting at the tornado pioneer’s home. ‘I was thrilled just to be able to go there for coffee. Wurman is crazy about weather extremes. He became well known through his special radar technique, which enables him to take snapshots of the entire surroundings very quickly.’

But things even got better. Wurman was about to intercept hurricane Gustav. ‘And he asked me along!’ That’s how Rutger Boonstra ended up in the middle of his first hurricane, less than a week later. The WUR student is keeping a blog of his adventures, with spectacular photographs at the web site www.roedi.nl. Wurman collects as many data as possible on hurricanes and tornadoes. Wind speeds, temperature, humidity, and preferrably right into the heart of the phenomenon. With regard to hurricanes, the CSWR is predominantly interested in the interaction between storm and land. ‘When a hurricane arrives on land, its strength changes. It is slowed down. The wind gusts that develop at that time depend on what the hurricane meets in terms of buildings and the like. The forces that can be released are huge.’ A better understanding of this interaction eventually is supposed to lead to better predictions and fewer victims.
Boonstra experienced the destructive force of both Gustav and Ike up close and personal. When Ike passed, the team found itself exactly in the eye of the hurricane at some point. ‘That is really bizarre. Within a minute, it is suddenly dead quiet. It stops raining. There is no wind whereas you were measuring speeds of about 160 kilometer per hour right before. After a while, it starts blowing again. And within a minute, you are finding top wind speeds again. Only, coming from the other direction.’
Ike was a giant, according to Boonstra. The eye measured seventy kilometer in diameter. Enough for 30 minutes without wind. During Ike, Boonstra’s team was strategically located on a viaduct. ‘And that was a very good thing, too’, he writes on his blog. ‘When I walked to the viaduct’s railing and used my flashlight to look down, I saw a boiling mass of water flowing at up to half a meter under the viaduct. Speed boats, refrigerators, tables, chairs, surf boards, literally everything was floating past.’
I felt shivers along my back, the student says in retrospect. For the first time, I became aware of the danger of what we were doing. ‘During Gustav, I never felt endangered. But that was in broad daylight. You were able to see what was happening. Ike happened at night.’
Boonstra fully acknowledges that chasing hurricanes is a dangerous job. ‘Of course, people do die in those hurricanes. But there was a reason why we had picked that bridge. I had the impression they knew what they were doing.’

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