University of Western Ontario: Students’ field work takes them to tornado aftermath

This summer, student interns at Western’s Northern Tornadoes Project (NTP) had the opportunity to gain a variety of experiences in studying and analyzing tornadoes from across the country.

NTP hired 10 interns this summer, including two high school students. Each intern was given a project to work on during the summer, with some of them having a chance to work with field teams that go out to survey damage after a tornado hit.

Daniel Butt, a third-year computer engineering student interning with the NTP, worked on a computer model that can detect trees and analyze their direction and aerial imagery during a tornado. The model looks at how many trees were knocked over during a storm and determines if a tornado caused it, along with the tornado’s strength and path. With this kind of automation, the amount of work needed to do an analysis is cut down, versus having to go into the field and identify treefall manually.

Butt credits classes in calculus and software engineering at Western for being useful in his transition into the project. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s very fun,” said Butt. “It’s definitely a cool thing to analyze tornadoes and see it from both being a very dangerous and destructive event, but also kind of a cool thing to work with.”

Founded in 2017 as a partnership between Western and ImpactWX, NTP aims to better detect tornado occurrence throughout Canada, improve severe and extreme weather prediction, mitigate against harm to people and property, and investigate future implications due to climate change.

David Sills, executive director of the NTP, said the internship program gives students a wide array of interesting experiences and the opportunity to do intensive projects. Some interns work on coding for computer models at the university, and some go into the field to survey fallen trees and take part in hailstone collection. He said the interns are key in “keeping the project running smoothly through the summer.”

“We want to provide experiences, but it’s also enabled us to fill gaps in our personnel,” said Sills. “We could use people for teams that go out to visit damaged sites and so on. It’s been great for filling gaps.”

As of Aug 11, the project has investigated 72 weather events this year, with 39 confirmed tornadoes across Canada.

One of the bigger tornadoes the interns got to work on was an EF-2 tornado on July 24 that hit near Rockdale, Ont. The EF-2 supercell tornado touched down around 8 p.m. with a maximum wind speed of 190 km/h, track length of 55.8 km and was 1,420 metres wide. Sills said a tornado of this size is uncommon as the average tornado has a track length of 10 to15 km and is 100 metres wide.

“This was a bit of a beast,” said Sills. “The damage was very impressive, especially to the forested areas. There were areas where every tree fell. [It was] a really impressive tornado from this season.”

Comments are closed.