For budding weather forecasters, it doesn't get any better than this -- spending three weeks with a "Doppler on Wheels" radar unit. Meteorology students at St. Cloud State University are getting a rare opportunity to play with this high-tech, storm-chasing toy.
The Doppler on Wheels looks like a semi truck, with a satellite dish mounted on the back where a trailer would normally be found. The dish is actually a huge radar antenna.
The antenna has to be stationed just right, and that explains the adjustable metal legs on the four corners of the truck, which raise it up and down and stabilize it. As it sits parked unevenly along a Sherburne County road, a meteorology student volunteers to level the truck, so its readings are accurate.
"That way we get good quality data," said Justin Walker, a radar technician with the Center for Severe Weather Research, the company that developed the Doppler on Wheels.
The radar uses electromagnetic waves to identify the range, altitude, direction and speed of objects, including storms.
Walker says severe weather researchers station the mobile Doppler within about a mile of a storm to get high-resolution data. As a storm or tornado passes near the Doppler, researchers can also get a time series of what's happening, kind of like a movie.
Walker has been training the St. Cloud State students how to operate the mobile Doppler system and collect and analyze data. So he stands by to guide them through their first radar scans.
"[The radar] allows us to see lots of small things, like insects and dust," said Walker. "They set up a scan so they can actually look at things that are invisible to the naked eye, so you can actually see what's going on in the lowest part of the atmosphere."
Walker says existing stationery radar systems only collect good data when storms get close to it. So the idea behind developing Doppler on Wheels was to take the radar to the storm.
The Center for Severe Weather research makes the nearly $1 million mobile radar available to small universities that don't have their own radar facilities. The National Science Foundation sponsors this project, so schools don't have to pay anything.
The Doppler on Wheels visited two universities last year for the first time. And this school year, it's visiting St. Cloud State and four other schools.
Greg Nastrom, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at St. Cloud State, submitted a proposal requesting the Doppler on Wheels. The intention was to look at autumn storms over northern plains.
"There haven't been any, as you can tell," Nastrom said.
Unfortunately for these would-be stormchasers, the Doppler is here during rare burst of beautiful, and calm, weather. But the students are still making the most of it. They're out in the outskirts of Sherburne County to look at the clear air.
"We're going to look at bugs and things like that that fly with the air, that move with the air," said Nastrom, "so we can, for example, look at the wind profile at different altitudes as a substitute project."
The students are still excited about their project, even though there aren't any storms to chase. They're getting to use one of three Doppler on Wheels units that top-notch scientists use. Leandro Ribeiro is a junior.
"We happen to be in the right class at the right time," said junior Leandro Ribeiro. "Not all of the meteorology students get to have this same experience and training that we're getting here."
As odd as it sounds, they'd be even luckier if a nice storm system would blow through central Minnesota. Otherwise it'll be a week of checking out emissions from smokestacks and cell towers.