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UAH students track severe weather potential in county

At the entrance to the Mike Green Industrial Park on Highway 243 in Russellville today, a tall white spire reached toward the sky, spiraled by a black cord. At its base was a large gray dome, both situated on a trailer. Gray clouds were building in the afternoon sky, threatening rain – and the mobile weather unit was capturing it all.

A four-person student team from the University of Alabama at Huntsville was monitoring the weather equipment, on a mission to gather any data they could about weather conditions preceding tornados.

“Basically what we’re doing – all of our instruments are vertically pointed … so we can take these vertical slices of the storm,” explained Ashley Ravenscraft, a graduate student in atmospheric science. Ravenscraft and her fellow classmates – Montana Etten-Bohm, Alex Staarmann and Cameron Kowalski – are “hoping to learn more about severe weather evolutions – how we get tornados down here in the South, and how those evolve (and) what kind of role topography has to do with tornado genesis. We’re hoping to sample a tornado,” Ravenscraft said.

UAH is one of several schools across the South and beyond involved in the VORTEX Southeast Research Program field campaign, through the National Severe Storms Laboratory. VORTEX Southeast is the 2016 iteration of the VORTEX project, which began in 1994 as a two-year campaign that led to several follow up studies and field projects.

The UAH team set up in the early afternoon Thursday and were prepared to spend the rest of the day and through the night at the entrance to the industrial park, tracking atmospheric conditions. “We’ll be out here until there’s not a threat of severe weather anymore,” Ravenscraft said.

Each student on the team in Russellville Thursday has his or her own reasons for majoring in atmospheric science and pursuing careers in meteorology. Etten-Bohm, a Birmingham native, made the decision after experiencing a tornado as a young child.

“I can remember that day like it was yesterday,” Etten-Bohm said.

For Ravenscraft, a Huntsville native, the destruction caused by the April 27, 2011, tornado in Northwest Alabama pushed her toward the career path.

“I was a student at UNA at the time and was deciding what I wanted to do career-wise … after that happened, seeing the devastation and how many lives were affected, that really spoke to me,” she said. “The death toll – it was sickening. It broke my heart.”