KSU’s extreme team is working with the weather

Adria Barbour

Weather Challenge promotes competition among student forecasters

Today’s weather forecast: Cloudy with a chance of snow. But you knew that, right? Chances are Kent State’s Extreme Weather Challenge Team knew it before you did.

The team, made up of students and faculty, participates in a contest in which they predict the weather of a city chosen by the judges every two weeks throughout the year, said Jason Senkbeil, a graduate assistant in the department of geography.

All of the team members have the same task: To forecast high and low temperatures, predict maximum sustained wind speed and find out how much rain will fall in hundredths of an inch over a period of one day.

Scott Sheridan, associate professor of climatology, said the project is in its fourth year of competition.

Senkbeil said the contest this year is called the Weather Challenge. More than 50 schools across the country are participating this year, he said. The University of Oklahoma coordinates it, and the judges of the contest choose the city for the students to forecast, in addition to monitoring findings, rating results and giving scores. The locations are chosen all from over the United States, so as not to give any school an advantage.

Junior geography major Cindy Shaffer said participants are divided into four categories: The first is for freshmen and sophomores, the second is for juniors and seniors, the third is for graduate students and the last is for faculty and staff.

“Some people are just so good, you wonder how they do it,” Shaffer said. “But then you realize you are competing against people who are specializing in this, or who have done it for years.”

Steep Competition

Competition is much stronger this year because there are different rules, more contestants and stricter penalties, Shaffer said. Each of the 1,262 participants have to update their forecasts every day, and if they don’t, the consequences can be detrimental.

Once, Shaffer said she received 10 points off her score for not updating her temperature for the day, and her rank plummeted.

“One knot off on wind speed, and you get error points off,” she said. “Every degree of temperature has to be correct, and the precipitation has to be to the nearest 100th of and inch.”

Shaffer said this year there are two types of scoring — one for individuals and one for the team — so a mistake not only affects the individual, but the team as a whole.

Different Approaches, Same Goal

Senkbeil said there are many ways to research for forecasting the weather, but most people rely on computer models.

“Satellites, radar — everything is online,” he said. “A person will mostly have to judge whether the model is wrong or not. If the Internet didn’t exist, some people would be in a lot of trouble.”

The Web site for the contest, www.wxchallenge.com, provides students with information to help them forecast, including temperatures on the earth’s surface and in the upper atmosphere. The Web site also offers online forums where participants can submit their forecasts and share information.

Usually a participant has to look at 10 to 20 different elements to do a successful forecast, Senkbeil said.

Shaffer said she looks at these models for 15 minutes a day.

“I realized it doesn’t make much of a difference,” she said. “It’s only two weeks! By the time you get used to one city, it’s time to move to the next one.”

However, senior geography major Candace Olszak said she spends about 90 minutes a day gathering information for her forecast. She said her method of studying includes the online sites, and she also frequently checks the Hurricane Center, the Naval Maritime Forecast Center and The Weather Channel.

With all this information swirling about, Shaffer said she relies on her experience and instincts to tell her what to believe.

“I call it a gut feeling,” she said. “I notice a pattern and take note. To me, it’s mostly an educated guess.”

The road last traveled

This year the number of participants has been cut to a highly experienced team of 15, Sheridan said.

“When you have a small team, it’s easy to keep up with everybody,” he said. “We’ve had pretty solid teams, but this year the competition is a lot stronger.”

Though this year’s team is more experienced, Senkbeil said participation is open to all who want to join.

“Anybody can do it as long as you love weather and are enough of a geek to come everyday,” Senkbeil said. “The 15 members this year that volunteered just happened to be the most skilled at what they do.”

Sheridan said this is an unusual program because Kent State doesn’t have a meteorology major, just a climatology minor.

“Usually schools that specialize in meteorology participate in the contest,” he said.

Senkbeil said climatology is the study of weather patterns over a long period of time, and meteorology has more to do with daily ups and downs in the weather.

“I just thought it would be fun for physical geographers and climatology minors to participate,” he said.

Senkbeil said this experience could also help those going into broadcast journalism majors, because private forecasting companies like The Weather Channel and AccuWeather look favorably on participation in the challenge.

Vanessa Myers, weather forecaster for TV-2, said being on the team has given her several advantages.

“I already have a degree in meteorology, so being on the team allows me to continue using my forecasting skills on a daily basis and forces me to keep an eye on the current weather,” she said. “By forecasting for cities throughout the U.S., I learn more about the weather in regions I’m not familiar with and gain forecasting skills for the unique weather patterns of those areas.”

Contact features corespondent Adria Barbour at [email protected].