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The storm chaser

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JUN 09 2008

Growing up on the Prairies, John Hanesiak was fascinated by the intense storms that would suddenly blow in on summer afternoons. Now a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Manitoba, Dr. Hanesiak has directed that keen interest to his career.

His specialty is storm tracking, which has led him to be known as the university’s unofficial storm chaser. The goal of such work is to improve weather warnings and forecasting, he says.

Last fall, for example, Dr. Hanesiak spent several weeks flying through massive Arctic storms in Nunavut as co-leader of a project named Storm Studies in the Arctic, or STAR. He’s chased storms in the Western Arctic as well.

But Prairie summer storms remain his favourite: “They’re the most exciting for me, in the sense that they’re pretty active.” These “super-cell” storms are actually quite small, usually about 10 to 15 km in diameter, develop quickly, and can lead to tornados, hail and damaging winds.

For the past several years, Dr. Hanesiak has teamed with Environment Canada meteorologists to offer a summer storm-tracking course to teach students the latest tools and techniques, complete with a five-day field trip chasing storms across the Prairies.

Last summer brought one of the most memorable storms in recent memory to the area, a category F5 tornado that hit Elie, Manitoba, on June 22. Some of the students in Dr. Hanesiak’s storm-chaser course managed to get footage of the big event, but he missed it. “I was at my cottage.”

Dr. Hanesiak isn’t teaching the course this summer, as he’s booked to do field work in Alberta for another storm-tracking project suitably named UNSTABLE, for UNderstanding Severe Thunderstorms and Alberta Boundary Layers Experiment.

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