Q&A with Karen Kosiba (Scientist)

YOU ARE THE VORTEX2 SCIENTIST RESPONSIBLE FOR COORDINATING THE PLACEMENT OF THE TORNADO PODS, THE HEAVY-BASED INSTRUMENTS THAT MEASURE WIND VELOCITY AND NEED TO BE PLACED RIGHT IN A TORNADO’S PATH. YOUR EFFORTS HELPED SECURE THE EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD DATA CATCH THAT WAS FEATURED AT THE END OF TORNADO ALLEY. WOULD YOU SAY THAT DELPLOYMENT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL?

Yeah, considering most of them have been terribly unsuccessful. [LAUGHS] What I mean is that it’s actually remarkably hard to get something hit by a tornado. It really is. Especially something that you can’t keep moving. Something like the TIV has an advantage, because it can keep adjusting. And I think if you watch the footage of the TIV, you’ll see that they sometimes adjust a little bit at the last minute. With the pods, you need to get them deployed and then leave. During the intercept you’re talking about, we did a pretty good job getting them in place. But the tornado changed paths right as it was coming towards the road. It moved a little bit to the north of the pods and then a little bit to the south. And by a little bit, I mean a real little bit, like fifty meters or so. We still got good data right around the tornado’s core, but the actual passage of the tornado? It looked so nice at first. It was so linear. And then all of a sudden it made this sharp right turn as it came towards the road. And at a certain point, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can only move the pods back and forth for so long.

 

WAS COORDINATING THE POD DROPS YOUR MAIN RESPONSIBILITY DURING VORTEX2?

Yeah, that definitely was my main responsibility. In addition to that, I operated the radar, so I was also making sure I was getting radar data. There are two of us in the radar truck, Josh and me, and our goal is to get the radar up and running and collecting data. Once that’s set, the radar doesn’t need too much babysitting. And then I can start focusing on the pod teams and getting them in the right place and the right position. I’m always hoping there will never be a terrible overlap. It’s a great exercise in multi-tasking.

 

AND HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THE MOVIE?

I’ve been working with Josh Wurman at the Center for Severe Weather Research since 2004. I started doing volunteer stuff out in the field while I was getting my Ph.D. And Josh and Sean Casey have worked together for years. They did another IMAX film together before this one. So I started working with Josh, and, through him, I started working with Sean. Just helping with weather instruments, tracking stuff, you name it.

 

GIVEN THE WEATHER YOU’RE IN, THERE MUST BE A LOT OF INSTRUMENTS THAT NEED REPAIRING?

Well, I think in all honesty the TIV has probably broken the most stuff. But in a good way. [LAUGHS] There are always things like airport clearances, low clearance areas and things. That’s usually how we break a lot of our instruments. And it’s not just the TIV, but our vehicles, as well.

 

THOSE DOW TRUCKS ARE ENORMOUS.

Well, in those you’re very aware of what you’re driving. But when you’re in a vehicle like a pick-up truck or an SUV and you can’t see the instruments, because they’re on top of the vehicle, you totally forget.

 

WERE THE IMAX CREWS WITH VORTEX2 DURING YOUR ENTIRE MISSION?

They came and went, if I’m remembering correctly. They were filming us at the very beginning, out in Boulder, as we were getting the radar trucks and the mesonets ready. And then they came back somewhere in the middle of the season, I think. Probably sometime in May.

 

WAS IT DISTRACTING TRYING TO DO YOUR WORK WITH THEM THERE?

You know, that’s something you start to get used to. There’s always been a film crew out there with us, from the time I started doing this. We’ve had the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers and National Geographic and other kinds of media, too. And I’m more than happy, honestly, to have them out there. All the different forms and flavors. People from different countries. The funny thing about the IMAX crew is you know their film is really, really expensive. Their shots tend to be shorter, like five or six seconds, so when they keep rolling you’re like, uh-oh, this is a real expensive shot coming up right now. It’s very different from the news crews or documentary crews who use digital cameras.

 

AND THE IMAX EQUIPMENT IS SO HEAVY.

Yes! Oh my God, yes. The guy who was in the DOW, filming us, he had this huge apparatus around him. I felt so bad for him getting in and out of the truck and getting his equipment on, because it was so huge and bulky.

 

YOU WROTE A BLOG FOR THE VORTEX2 WEB SITE, WHICH IS SORT OF A JOURNALISTIC ACCOUNT OF THE V2 MISSION. THERE WERE SOME FUNNY OBSERVATIONS ABOUT ROAD FOOD. JAMOCHA SHAKES, FROM ARBY’S, SEEMED TO BE POPULAR WITH EVERYONE. DINNER WAS OFTEN A CHOICE BETWEEN SONIC OR MCDONALDS. YOU EVEN FOUND A RESTAURANT IN KOLBY, KANSAS, CALLED TWISTERS BAR & GRILL.

[LAUGHS] We tend to go back to a lot of the same places. There are towns in Kansas and Nebraska we keep returning to that I never even knew existed before. So we have our favorite restaurants picked out when we go to these towns. Sometimes we even have the menus memorized.

 

YOU’VE PASSED THROUGH SOME BEAUTIFUL PARTS OF THE COUNTRY. 

Yes, and it was fun to find the little, unexplored places in these towns.

 

THE TOWNS OFTEN HAD MEMORABLE NAMES, TOO. SLAPOUT, OKLAHOMA. LIBERAL, KANSAS. LAST CHANCE, COLORADO.

And this year we went to a place in Wyoming called Devil’s Collar, which was a first. So exploring in our down time was kind of fun, because you don’t get to see these places otherwise. At least I don’t.

 

AND WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THE TOWN WHERE YOU GOT THE BIG DATA CATCH AT THE END OF TORNADO ALLEY?

Goshen. It was in southeast Wyoming. That I won’t forget.

 

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GLEAN FROM THE DATA YOU CAPTURED THAT DAY?

Well, the funny thing, first of all, is when you get all this data you sometimes think, Gosh, I wish we could’ve gotten this other type of data. You get so greedy. [LAUGHS] It’s terrible, but it’s true. You start thinking right away what the next step is. You have this big data set and you’re like, hmm, that’s nice, but I wonder if I could get this? In terms of the Goshen County storm, though, everybody’s still in their preliminary analysis stages.

 

DO YOU EVENTUALLY HOPE TO MAKE DISCOVERIES THAT WILL HELP LENGTHEN TORNADO WARNING TIMES?

That really has to do with identifying stuff we haven’t identified yet, which sounds very vague, I know. It’s like we need to learn more about the science, and once we learn a little bit more about that, we can apply it to forecasting warning signs. But that is still very far down the road, compared to gaining what new knowledge we can get now.

 

WAS THE GOSHEN COUNTY STORM UNUSUAL?

Well, particularly because VORTEX2 seemed to get off to a very slow start in 2009, Goshen was just like, yes, finally! We had this very slow-moving tornado, and we didn’t have that many road options, so there weren’t really big logistical decisions to have to make. It was just a nice set up. I kept thinking, thank you! Once we got out and deployed, we were able to get this really nice, integrated data set on a long-lived tornado. And it’s not that the other deployments weren’t great, but a lot of the other tornadoes we got data on weren’t as long-lived. Or some of our researchers were deployed for part of the time, some for the other. In Goshen, everything just came together.