Five Questions for Katja Friedrich

Storm chaser, professor in the department of atmospheric and ocean sciences, CU-Boulder

May and June are a most perfect and tumultuous time of year for Katja Friedrich. That's when blue skies turn black, swirling clouds become furious funnels and Friedrich travels thousands of miles across the country in search of storm data.

Friedrich – professor in the department of atmospheric and ocean sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 2008 – is a storm chaser, hoping to find clues about the processes involved in cloud development, thunderstorms and precipitation in order to better predict precipitation amounts, flash floods and severe weather.

This spring, during the Verification of the Origins of Rotation and Tornado Experiment (or VORTEX2), she and other researchers deployed sophisticated equipment that measured data including the size of raindrops and how fast they fell.

While the job sounds dangerous, the researchers carefully analyze storms and "always have an exit route in our minds," Friedrich said. She and the others are not only responsible for the safety of students participating in the fieldwork, but also the million-dollar equipment.

This past January and February, Friedrich participated in an experiment – the inhibition of snowfall by pollution aerosols – which tried to quantify the impact of aerosols on winter precipitation across the Colorado mountains and the Colorado River basin.

Although technology has come a long way, the instruments used to research storms have limitations. Friedrich spends time developing more advanced instrumentation, including an upgrade of the mobile Doppler radar to better characterize the properties of precipitation.

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. You just returned from fieldwork chasing storms around the country. Explain how VORTEX2 works.

VORTEX2 was conducted between May 1 and June 15. Since we were studying tornadic thunderstorms, we had to travel with the severe weather, which means we drove about 13,000 miles covering the Great Plains (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas). You can view a map of the hotel locations here:

We were taking measurements almost every day in the project, covering about 24 events. Some of them were tornadic thunderstorms (six to eight events) while the rest were severe thunderstorms. It is important to study both supercells that form a tornado and those that do not in order to see the important processes and environmental structures of temperature, humidity and wind in tornadic versus nontornadic storms.

Usually the morning started out with a meeting of all the principal investigators giving status updates of instruments and determining the best chances to encounter severe weather for that day and for the following day. At the end of the meeting, we tried to find a consensus on what the targets of the day would be and set a meeting time and point. Then each team would get the instruments ready, gas up the car, check out of the hotel, get lunch, etc.

A team of three forecasters constantly monitored the weather. When we arrived at the target location, we re-evaluated our plans and continued to monitor storm development. Once we found a storm we thought had the potential to become a tornadic supercell, each team took a position and deployed instruments. The radars were on the southern side, ahead of the storm and moving with the storm. Surface instruments were deployed ahead of the storm on the southern side. The unmanned aerial vehicles flew in the area of radar coverage and the mobile mesonet (weather sensors on vehicles) took measurements of temperature, wind and humidity in the area close to where the tornado would form.

We would follow the storm and continue to take measurements until the storms died or we found a more interesting storm. At the end of the day's mission, we collected our instruments and drove back to a hotel that would be close to the area where we thought storms would develop the next day.

2. You also participated in last year's VORTEX2 fieldwork. What did you learn from that trip?

When you are out for six weeks, you collect a huge amount of data. Usually we spend several months going through the data, applying quality control algorithms and trying to find a handful of interesting cases. Last year was an unusually bad year for tornadoes: We only had three events with interesting tornado formation. So far, we have analyzed the rain size distribution measurements and found some interesting rapid changes in size and intensity of rain. Using this year's data, we will try to verify the results from last year to find out if these rapid changes occur on a regular basis or if they are related to a special event.

3. You received your education in Germany. Why did you choose to come to Colorado to continue your research?

Boulder is a great place for atmospheric sciences, which I think is unique in the world. Most of the famous scientists in atmospheric science are affiliated with NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) or NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Although some of them live in different areas, most of them will stop by for the summer at NCAR. I very much like the atmosphere in Boulder and the opportunity of collaborations between the university and NCAR and NOAA.

I started studying physics for my undergraduate degree but wanted to do something more applied. At the University of Leipzig in Germany, the department of physics has a close collaboration with the department of meteorology, which I thought was an interesting area. At the time, meteorology or atmospheric science was not a popular area since it was a time when climate change, severe weather or even weather forecasting was not a popular topic in the media. I remember that there were a total of 10 students in the entire department. Later I moved to Munich to finish my Ph.D. and then I became interested in mountain meteorology. When you are out in the mountains, you discover so much more interesting phenomena that are caused by the mountains and that fascinated me. I also started to become a glider pilot spending many hours in the European Alps.

4. When you're not chasing storms, how do you spend your time?

Although I am a passionate scientist, I am always trying to live a balanced live. I love music and play the violin and the piano, and I love being outdoors. It's interesting that a lot of my research ideas were born during a hike in the mountains or while practicing boring scales at the piano. Although I loved to fly when I lived in Munich, I hardly find the time anymore. Right now I enjoy things that I can do with my family and friends like ski touring, downhill skiing, biking and hiking. While I used to be very ambitious – climbing a lot of mountains in the Alps and Mount Kenya in Africa and participating in bike races in the Alps – I have become more settled over the last few years and enjoy just being out with friends in nature.

5. What do you love most – and dislike most – about your work?

I like the diversity of education and research on a daily basis. I am teaching, supervising students, working on research topics, designing field campaigns, doing fieldwork and writing research grants. I am very passionate about my job and that is what I am trying to pass on to the new generation of students and also the general public. What I have learned is that as a professor, you also serve as a role model to a lot of students and you teach them not just science but also ethics and principles in research and even life.

I am a very positive person, so for me there is not such a thing as a "worst job." Every job has excitement but at various levels. I strongly dislike paperwork. And I am very impatient, especially when I have a new idea that I would like to move forward as quickly as possible – then I hate it if people stop me or slow me down.

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