Each summer, Ball State University offers the six credit-hour course Geography 490, Field Observation of Severe Local Storms. The members of the class are called the Great Plains Storm Chase Team. As part of the class, they travel between the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi River studying thunderstorms and tornadoes. Using maps and atlases is a critical part of the class, and the Ball State University Libraries’ GIS Research and Map Collection (GRMC) is an important resource for the maps and other cartographic materials they use.
The four-week class is divided into four days of classroom training and three weeks traveling in the field. While in the classroom, students learn about map and atlas reading, radar training, and the basics of forecasting and thunderstorm formation. Topographic maps and other atlases are used extensively during the field study portion of the class to determine the best travel routes and which roads are paved, gravel, or dirt—key information for storm chasing.
Dr. David Call, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, has been teaching this class for the last four years. He is a regular user of topographic maps from the GRMC. They are critical for the storm chase class, and he incorporates the maps into classroom projects on flooding, urban development, and the changing course of the Mississippi River.
This year the class traveled the Plains from May 23 through June 9, driving 7,979 miles and passing through 12 states in addition to Indiana. Dr. Call’s experience leading the team allowed him to describe this year’s trip as “… routine in the sense that I knew, for the most part, what sorts of problems to expect and what types of weather we might see.” Dr. Call explained that even with his experience, the trip was exciting, exhilarating, and not lacking surprises.
Alexander K. March, a meteorology student participating in the class, described the most exciting day of the trip as “Gustnado Day.” A gustnado is similar to, but different from, a tornado. It is a violent updraft not attached to the cloud base. Winds pick up and blow around dirt and debris with a force reaching up to 100 miles per hour.
The class witnessed several gustnadoes while traveling in Nebraska and actually drove through the middle of the updraft. March said they witnessed an irrigation system getting picked up and thrown in the storm. While stopping to look at the storm, March was able to lay back into the wind while another student’s glasses were sucked off his face. The class then witnessed a tornado less than a half-mile from the road.
March frequently uses the GRMC’s computers that are specialized for GIS applications to create custom maps, especially related to weather events. Recently, he created a map of the locations visited by the Geography 490 class using Google Maps. A photo album of the class trip is available online.
Another storm chase team comprised of science teachers from Oklahoma also used topographic maps from the GRMC for their summer trip across the Plains. Laura Ames West and her husband Andrew chased storms through Missouri and Oklahoma with other teachers.
The GRMC was able to provide the team with maps detailing the road networks. West will be creating a Web page showing the team’s travels across the Plains and will use historic maps of Joplin, Missouri from the GRMC to show the effects of the deadly May tornado on the town.
West said that the GRMC provides an important service for researchers in the field, “We have travelled to some really remote locations, and we know exactly the conditions of roads and the topography of the land that will be encountered because of the maps provided by the GRMC. We’re able to have access to thousands of historic and current maps for our weather research.”
The GRMC includes over 30,000 historic and current topographic maps of the United States. These maps are available to students and faculty for use in the field or in classrooms.
The GRMC provides students and faculty with access to 28 high-end computers that can be used for mapping and GIS, an integral part of the curriculum in many disciplines at Ball State University.