Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota college students traveling to path of totality for national eclipse project

Students get ready to launch a weather balloon
St. Cloud State University students taking part in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project during the annular solar eclipse in 2023 in Socorro, N.M.
Courtesy Rachel Humphrey

A coalition of Minnesota college students will head to Indiana to be part of a national project for the solar eclipse. This includes students from St. Cloud State University, the University of Minnesota, St. Catherine University, and Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College.

They will launch weather balloons to gather data about how the atmosphere changes during an eclipse. St. Cloud State Planetarium Director and atmospheric science professor Rachel Humphrey joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

MPR News will carry special coverage of the total solar eclipse Monday, April 8 from 1 to 3 p.m., right after Minnesota Now.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A coalition of college students in Minnesota will be heading to Indiana to be part of a national project for the solar eclipse. It includes students from St. Cloud State, the University of Minnesota, St. Kate's, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. That's a lot.

The project will involve launching weather balloons during the eclipse to gather data about how the atmosphere changes during an eclipse. How cool is this? Joining us to talk about this once in a lifetime experience is Rachel Humphrey. She's the director of the St. Cloud State Planetarium and a professor of atmospheric science. Professor, welcome.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Hi, Cathy. Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh. I wish I could stow away with you guys. This sounds really cool.

[LAUGHTER]

So you decided to go to Indiana, huh?

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yeah. So we in the Minnesota team, we had gone down to Socorro, New Mexico, for the October annular eclipse. And this time we needed to be somewhere within driving range. So the closest that we could go would be Indiana. So that is where we have gone, where we will be going.

CATHY WURZER: Fingers crossed, you'll be right in the line there. I hope the weather holds for you.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yeah, we're hoping for that too. And as a team from St. Cloud State, most of us are meteorologists. We're looking at those models like there's no tomorrow, right? So it's looking like there might be a little bit of cloudiness. But the science that we're doing when we're launching the weather balloons, we actually don't necessarily need it to be clear down below.

Obviously, we would love it to be clear. But the science data that we're going to be collecting is actually in an area of the atmosphere called the stratosphere. So we're going to be looking at changes up there. And we're going to be crossing our fingers that we're going to have a clear view. But yeah.

CATHY WURZER: I understand this is a national project. So there'll be folks all across the country launching weather balloons?

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yes, that's correct. So the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project is fully funding about 53 teams all across the country. And it's going to have over 750 participants, which is great. Most of them are going to be students, which is very cool.

The Minnesota team is actually special in that we're the only all-women student team, which is cool. And it's all about exposing students of all sorts of different backgrounds to STEM and STEM education and getting practice with hands-on data collection and data analysis and all that.

CATHY WURZER: I love the fact that your team is all women. That is fantastic. Say, I'm curious because, obviously, I'm a bit of a weather nerd myself. What kind of data are you hoping to gather from the weather balloons?

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yeah, that's a great question. So we're going to be sending up weather balloons that have little instrument packs connected to them called radiosondes. And those radiosondes are going to be very similar to what is launched by the National Weather Service multiple times a day.

So we're going to be sending them up for 30 straight hours. So we're going to be collecting a lot of data. But we're going to be looking at how temperature, pressure, wind speed, and direction, as well as relative humidity changes with height.

CATHY WURZER: And I wonder-- gosh, so it changes with height. But I wonder, then, how does what happens during an eclipse factor into that?

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yeah, that's another great question. And that's actually at the heart of the research that we're doing at least for the atmospheric science track anyway. Basically, we have a pretty good understanding as scientists that the sun is pretty important for driving a lot of our weather.

And we have a great opportunity to see what happens to the atmosphere when something big blocks out the sun for a little bit of time. So we're going to be looking and seeing how the atmosphere responds to having a change in the incoming solar radiation. And we're also going to be looking at near-surface changes as well in temperature and all of the other conditions that I talked about as well.

There's also another part of this project which involves looking at the changes in sound near the surface as well, so seeing how ecosystems adapt and change in the context of the eclipse as well. So--

CATHY WURZER: Would it be interesting to see when all the data is compiled? And I wonder, then, how you might use some of the information, especially as we look at how our atmosphere is changing due to climate change.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Oh. Well, that's obviously going to be on a very different time scale.

CATHY WURZER: Sure, absolutely.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: But it might be really cool to go back and see-- for example, the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project is actually for this year-- in 2023 and '24 is actually a continuation of something that was done in 2017. So we're absolutely going to be looking and comparing the data from there as well.

So we've got a whole bunch of scientists all across the country who are very, very excited for this data. Because it's a very coordinated effort. We're going to be sending up balloons at a very specific time, very specific intervals. And each flight goes up about 100,000 feet or more. So there's a lot of data that's going to have to be processed afterwards.

CATHY WURZER: Say, by the way, have you seen an eclipse yourself?

RACHEL HUMPHREY: I have, yes. So we obviously went down in 2023 for the annular eclipse, and that was pretty neat. I've seen partial eclipses. I'm from New York originally. So I've seen partial eclipses. I've never been in the path of totality before. One of my earliest memories is of a partial eclipse. But, nope, I've never seen a total eclipse. So I'm hoping.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I know.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Hoping for clear skies for us.

CATHY WURZER: I hope you do have clear skies. And I'm sure your students are going to be really excited. Because I'm going to presume that this might be one of their-- for some of them anyway-- their first, hopefully, total eclipse.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Yeah, yeah. And another really great aspect of this project is that they get a chance to share their knowledge with others. So educational outreach is a huge part of the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. And we have students on this team who have backgrounds in biology and chemistry and atmospheric science and education.

And so they really get to meet with lots of other people. Not just other scientists, but we have over 600 students coming to our launch site in Indiana. We're going to be sharing with them all different ways to safely observe the eclipse, but also tell them a little bit about what we're doing in our project too. And watching the students grow and change in terms of their confidence levels as they're sharing their knowledge with others is really great. That's my favorite part of this project thus far.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Well, safe travels. I hope you all enjoy yourself.

RACHEL HUMPHREY: Thank you very, very much.

CATHY WURZER: Great talking to you. Rachel Humphrey has been with us, the director of the St. Cloud State Planetarium and a professor of atmospheric science. By the way, we will be carrying live coverage of the eclipse this coming Monday, 1:00 to 3:00 PM, right after this program.

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