As yet another winter storm hits the Red River Valley, forecasters are looking to more accurately predict just how much snow will fall and where, but high winds and storm movement often make that a difficult task. A research team at UND is aiming to help with that weather data.

Led by associate professor Aaron Kennedy, the UND Atmospheric Sciences Department this semester is conducting a National Science Foundation-funded educational weather field campaign to study falling and blowing snow environments.

“Basically, on the science side, what we want to understand is, how the heck do we take measurements in complicated weather events like blizzards? It's really challenging,” Kennedy said.

There’s a lot happening during a blizzard, from falling snow to blowing snow, Kennedy noted. Having a better understanding of what is going on during a blizzard, such as the size of the crystals that are falling, can help create more accurate weather models, he said. And that could mean more accurate weather forecasts for the public.

When snow crystals hit the ground and then go back into the air — which is what happens in blowing snow events — the ice crystals shatter into smaller pieces. However, that information isn’t in any of the forecasting models, which means it can be hard to predict just how much snow will accumulate.

“You have to use deductive reasoning with your knowledge of what the snowpack is like, how strong the winds are going to be. Wind forecasts aren't perfect, either,” Kennedy said. "And so what we're trying to do is figure out what observations will actually work so that we can do a larger field campaign in the future.”

The core part of the campaign will be from Jan. 20 to Feb. 10, when the Center for Severe Weather Research’s Doppler on Wheels will be visiting the campus. Under the supervision of Kennedy, student-led teams will help with data collection, using various in-situ and remotely sensed instrument platforms.

Behind the scenes, Kennedy has developed a low-cost camera system to take pictures of snowflakes as they fly by. Those cameras aren’t exactly new, but Kennedy’s model is at a much lower cost than the typical camera, which is often created from repurposed aircraft parts. Those cameras can cost up to six figures, something that’s not always in the budget for university research. So Kennedy developed a camera using his knowledge of photography and the help from a few other researchers at a price point of about $5,000, a much lower cost than any other camera on the market.

Kennedy has had the camera set up in his backyard since 2019's Thanksgiving blizzard, and he has been using it to collect detailed photos of snowflakes.

This image shows what snowflakes look like in detail. Submitted photo
This image shows what snowflakes look like in detail. Submitted photo

This image shows what snowflakes look like after they've hit the ground and been broken up after high winds caused blowing snow. Submitted photo
This image shows what snowflakes look like after they've hit the ground and been broken up after high winds caused blowing snow. Submitted photo

But the project goes beyond just collecting photos of snowflakes during blizzards. It’s a largely collaborative project. The National Severe Storms Laboratory, based out of Oklahoma, has developed an imaging system that goes on weather balloons. That technology has been used in a thunderstorm and even a hurricane, but to Kennedy’s knowledge, the balloons haven’t been launched into a blizzard. Data collected from these balloons can be important in recording how high blowing snow is getting into the atmosphere and what those snowflakes look like as they go up in the sky and then fall again. One group of students will work on this aspect.

Education

Another group of students will make up the radar team, using local radar systems and the Center for Severe Weather Research’s Doppler on Wheels to collect detailed radar information about a snowstorm. Kennedy aims to deploy the Doppler on Wheels radar during a blizzard. The Doppler on Wheels fleet has collected data in 200 tornadoes and inside the cores of 13 hurricanes.

A major part of the project is education, Kennedy noted. Wednesday, the group will have a presentation about their work at 6 p.m. at Half Brothers Brewing Company in downtown Grand Forks. The Doppler on Wheels will be available for tours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. All ages are welcome to attend, Kennedy said. The Doppler on Wheels will be on display during the UND aerospace school’s community day on Feb. 8.

Another facet of the campaign includes collaborating with schools in the region, Kennedy said. Students will use snowboards to learn how to best measure snowfall. The students will then report those measurements back to UND and Kennedy’s crew to show how much one storm can vary in snowfall amounts across the area.

“One of the big outreach goals is to explain that not all ice crystals or snowflakes are the same,” Kennedy said. “That means different things for us, right? Certain snow events, we can build a snowman and other ones we can't. Certain snowfall events are a pain in the butt to shovel and others aren’t. Just speaking about it in ways that the students can relate to.”

Kennedy can take the images he took with the camera he developed to shoot snowflakes and take those images to the schools to show students what different types of snowflakes look like. He also can use those images in his own classroom and curriculum.

“You're taking that research and directly connecting it to the education, which is probably the coolest part,” he said. “Typically when you get to experience the hands-on, real-world data, that’s when the light bulbs go off in your brain.”