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UAlbany Places Second in National Weather Forecasting Competition

Front row, from left:  Casey Peirano (graduate student), Ernesto Findlay (graduated spring 2014), Travis Elless (graduate student), Michael Fischer (graduate student) Back row, from left:  Kristen Corbosiero (assistant professor), Ross Lazear (instructional support specialist and WxChallenge local manager), Brian Tang (assistant professor), Leon Nguyen (graduate student), Bill Lamberson (graduate student). Photo by Mark Schmidt.

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 11, 2014) -- University at Albany students, faculty and staff recently captured second place at WxChallenge, a national online weather forecasting competition, run by the University of Oklahoma.

For the second consecutive year, UAlbany was second only to Penn State in the contest, further solidifying its position as a national leader in atmospheric sciences. Nearly 2,000 individuals on 47 teams from colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada participated.

Ross Lazear, a lecturer in UAlbany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, was the UAlbany team manager as they demonstrated their ability to predict weather in 10 cities across the nation.

“During the competition, the team worked individually from their computers preparing forecasts four times a week to track high and low temperatures, maximum wind speed and precipitation totals for a list of ten cities,” said Lazear. “Afterwards, we all gathered to see what we could learn from each other’s predictions.”

The national opportunity also afforded undergrad and grad students an invaluable experience.

Ernesto W. Findlay, a first-year graduate student from Brooklyn competed as a senior at UAlbany. “Being in the Albany WxChallenge is like being in a family that endures to the end, never giving up. It was a great opportunity to get to know professors as they make their forecasts and it enabled me to put all of my knowledge about weather in practice for many different places across the United States,” he said.

Leon Nguyen, a top forecaster on the UAlbany team, was drawn to UAlbany’s program because of his desire to study hurricanes.

“Participating in the WxChallenge has enabled me to become a better forecaster so that I can teach these skills to students in future courses,” said Nguyen, a fifth-year doctoral student from Fresno, Calif. who plans to become a professor. “I chose to enroll at UAlbany for a variety of reasons. The atmospheric and environmental sciences program is well known throughout the field for quality, cutting-edge research. I wanted to specifically study hurricanes, and with so many UAlbany professors doing great work in this area, the learning opportunities were enormous.”

For many years, the UAlbany atmospheric sciences program has attracted the best students and prepared them for careers in the National Weather Service, environmental firms, and broadcast meteorology.

“UAlbany’s atmospheric science program is a very tight-knit community,” said Nguyen. “The students help each other with coursework and research, and encourage each other in their career aspirations. The older students and professors serve as excellent mentors for our younger students. We regularly participate in social activities throughout the year and some of our professors even join us from time to time.”

Honing their Skills on Weather Closer to Home

Just weeks later, Lazear applied the same knowledge from the weather competition to the May 22 tornado that cut a path through parts of New York’s Montgomery and Schenectady counties. The storm destroyed a home in Duanesburg, N.Y., and its fierce winds toppled two tractor trailers on Interstate-88.

Lazear and his fellow storm spotters, assistant professors Kristen Corbosiero and Brian Tang, identified the rotation in the storm using radar imagery, and started following it in the Southern Adirondack Mountains, intercepting the storm near Amsterdam, N.Y.

They stopped when the sky turned dark and the radar showed a strong rotation.  “This one was moving South-Southeast,” said Lazear. “We could see the storm’s circulation from behind shortly after the tornado moved between Delanson and Duanesburg.”

Scientists like Lazear seek to learn more about these storms to predict the weather as accurately as possible, and to give people enough advance notice to get inside and seek shelter. The seemingly random nature of these storms and the speed with which they can intensify make every extra minute of warning count. Their experience was chronicled in the Times Union article “Storm Spotters Awed by Supercell Thunderstorm.”

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