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Marriage Made in the Heavens: Storm-Chasing Engineers Share Passion for Extreme Weather

Jenn and Scott Nicholson on a storm chase. The couple share a passion for extreme weather. Photo by Ted Friel

Storm chaser Scott Nicholson remembers the day he first fell in love with extreme weather.

“I was 3 years old, sitting on our front steps with my dad back when we lived in the Chicago area, and he pointed out a storm front coming in from the west,” Nicholson said.

Like hearing a Beethoven symphony for the first time, young Scott was captivated by the beauty and power of nature. The fascination would last a lifetime, leading to a career in weather technology – and even romance and marriage to a fellow storm chaser and Raytheon meteorologist.

Nicholson’s interest in storms grew after he moved to Nebraska in the Midwest’s “Tornado Alley.” Seeing the Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton film Twister clinched it: he chased his first tornadoes in 2000, sighting four twisters in October of that year. In 2001 he graduated from Omaha’s Creighton University with a Bachelor’s degree in Atmospheric Science.

Nicholson would ultimately go to work for Raytheon Company as a test and systems engineer for the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), the core system used by the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to predict weather conditions and issue severe weather alerts.

It was during a business trip to the Washington, D.C. area that Scott would discover his other great love: Raytheon meteorologist Jennifer Bunting, a fellow AWIPS engineer.

Radar data in AWIPS showing a half-degree of reflectivity. Reflectivity is the amount of energy reflected from a storm back to a radar station.

A PASSION FOR THUNDER AND LIGHTNING

Despite growing up in the comparatively tranquil climate near Philadelphia, Jennifer had also developed a fascination with the power of weather. Her parents would find her sitting out in the driveway during thunderstorms, wanting to experience the storm in its full glory.

Like Scott, Jenn earned a degree in Atmospheric Science/Meteorology – hers from Millersville University in Lancaster, Penn.

“I had a secret desire to see a tornado up close, which I always worried was a little bit weird,” Jenn said. After their first meeting, Scott returned to Omaha and told a colleague he had found “the one.” Scott and Jenn would marry, and in 2010, she joined him at Raytheon’s Omaha office. There, the two engineers support AWIPS by testing weather software used by National Weather Service offices nationwide.

A tornado churns over a field in this photo from one of the Nicholsons' storm-chasing trips.The AWIPS system plays a critical role in the ability of U.S. forecasters to make weather predictions that can save lives and safeguard property. It’s a complex network of systems that collect and integrate meteorological, hydrological, satellite and radar data.

The move to Tornado Alley was a dream come true for Jenn, as Scott’s passion for storm chasing brought her close to weather events of a magnitude she had never experienced back in Pennsylvania.

Together, she and Scott now travel from Minnesota to Texas – ranging as far as 800 miles from Omaha – in search of Mother Nature at her most ferocious.

The AWIPS II workstation is the hardware environment that enables forecasters to view many different types of meteorological information.They monitor NOAA reports that predict where severe storms are likely to develop. As weather conditions evolve, Scott and Jenn often devote a weekend or longer to chasing down a storm. Sometimes they dash out after work if the storm is forecast to hit less than a few hours away. They even offer a tornado tour service to the public in their off hours.

As professional meteorologists and weather information system engineers, the Nicholsons may know more about the storms they’re chasing — but they’re by no means out there alone. Storm chasing has become far more popular since the movie Twister came out, Scott says.

“The most dangerous thing about what we do isn’t the tornado coming at you. It’s the volume of traffic brought on by the popularity of storm chasing,” Scott said. The Nicholsons have at times seen caravans with dozens of vehicles, including amateur and professional storm chasers, research crews and broadcast networks, all converging on the same storm.

No one should attempt to chase a storm alone, Scott said, and everyone should ride with someone with at least five years of experience. The Nicholsons also perform a public service when chasing storms, collecting real-time information on severe thunderstorms for the National Weather Service.

This helps improve their ability to predict the formation and movement of tornados and the supercells that spawn them — allowing Scott and Jenn Nicholson to contribute to public safety while living out their own personal storm-chasing dream.

While witnessing a tornado up close is the peak experience of storm chasing, every thunderstorm gives new insights, and a new appreciation, of the power of nature, the Nicholsons say.

“It never fails to take my breath away,” Jenn said.

Last Updated: 07/09/2014

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