Purdue College of Science
It's a warm August night in downtown Lafayette and the upstairs crowd at the Lafayette Brewing Company is gathering energy. The large second-floor room in the old building is filled with tables of people drinking beer, snacking on food, buzzing with conversation.
The venue often hosts touring rock bands and acoustic acts. Tonight, it's the monthly Science on Tap program and the topic du jour is tornadoes.
The program, founded by biomedical engineering postdoctoral researchers John Paderi and Kate Stuart with professor Alyssa Panitch, takes Purdue science to the masses in an informal setting. In its first year, the free event has drawn a following - about 80 people attend each time - including Kevin Saker, a 1989 Purdue technical graphics graduate, who drives the 30 minutes from his Monticello home each month to hear Purdue researchers speak. Topics have ranged from "Turning Your Taxes into Medical Breakthroughs and the Impact on Our Economy" to an evening with researchers who gained national attention for their study of head injuries sustained by high school football players.
"I'm very interested in science and really like the topics," Saker says as he stands in line at the bar for a beer refill. "The first one (by Steve Wereley, professor of mechanical engineering) on the oil spill in the gulf was fascinating." Tonight's presentation is by Jeff Trapp, professor and associate head of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He will talk about tornadoes, a very timely topic given the whopper of a storm that had passed through the area the day before and the slate of killer storms across the country during the 2011 spring and summer season.
"This is a great opportunity to share what I do," Trapp says to the crowd as he walks everyone through computer modeling and supercell thunderstorms 101. He discusses ways to collect data: Doppler, probes. And he explains ways in which storms form: "The environment controls the storm formation," he says. This environment includes conditions above the ground and on the ground - temperature, pressure, humidity. He discusses wind shear and pulls out a homemade prop to demonstrate how wind shear occurs.
When directed, members of the audience hold their hands out horizontally and imagine the tops of their hands undergoing strong wind shear that tips them into vertical positions. This is how wind shear creates tornadoes, he tells them. The storm the day before, with its pea green skies, torrential rain and powerful wind, may have worried many in the audience, but he tells them it didn't concern him; it lacked wind shear.
Models, though, indicate rough weather ahead. In a 2007 study published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," Trapp suggested that because of global warming, locations could see as much as a 100 percent increase in the number of days that favor severe thunderstorms and tornadoes by the end of the 21st century.
Trapp concludes his presentation by discussing such advances in tornado prediction with the audience. Tornadoes, he says, are still hard to predict, but the type of modeling being done by Trapp and his colleagues in EAS may help. The one thing that can be done right away, he says, is improving human response.
"The point I would like to make," he tells the audience, "is that you all need to take responsibility for yourself and your families."
Saker and his wife leave the evening of science satisified, having learned something new about predictive models going 20 years forward that indicate more frequent tornadoes in the eastern part of the country. "The program," he says, "was great as always."