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Weather Girl Dreams

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AP File
AP File

Editor's Note: HuffPost College asked winners of the Undergraduate Awards to write an essay about the personal reasons and ambitions behind their research. Their responses are collected in the Thesis Project.

When I was three years old, my piano teacher asked me what I wanted to be when
I grew up and my response was "a weather girl!" My parents thought I would
grow out of that stage the way kids usually grow out of their policeman, fireman
or doctor phase. But this never happened. Although many people are interested in
meteorology, my passion extends far enough to put me into the category of being
a "weather weenie," a distinguished title reserved for those of us who are overly
passionate about the weather to the point of calling it a lifelong obsession.

My passion lead me to complete my certificate in Meteorological Forecasting at
Pennsylvania State University in 2006, as well as my BSc. in Atmospheric and
Oceanic Sciences at McGill University in 2012. While at McGill, I approached the
chair of our department looking for research opportunities and quickly found my
calling. My supervisor, Professor John Gyakum, and I had decided early on that my
research would focus on the phenomenon of freezing rain in the St. Lawrence River
Valley, located in southern Quebec. The valley is home to Montreal and Quebec
City: large urban cities often subject to the destructive nature of this meteorological
phenomenon. The Saint-Lawrence River valley has the highest occurrence of
freezing rain in North America. The economic impact of the historic 1998 Ice storm
alone was over $1 billion in southern Quebec, of which $790 million was
property damage. It is in fact the longevity of these events that poses the highest

Forecasting the weather in general is quite difficult, and freezing rain is no
exception. The phenomenon manifests itself under very specific atmospheric
conditions, namely a shallow cold layer of sub-zero (°C) temperatures at the surface
and a warm layer of above-zero temperatures aloft. This allows snow falling from
clouds to melt into rain through the warm layer, and then freeze upon contact
with the surface. These specific conditions are one of the reasons why the Saint-
Lawrence River valley is so conducive to freezing rain events. The valley provides
a sort of shelter for the cold air, while warmer air is free to flow aloft. Extending
from the southwest to the northeast, the valley is also geographically oriented in
such a way that promotes what is known as "pressure-driven channeling". Simply
put, storm tracks in eastern North America often times have an anticyclone (high
pressure system) located in the Canadian Maritimes (to the northeast), and a
cyclone (low pressure system) over the Great Lakes (to the southwest). Just as
differing amounts of water in two glasses would attempt to equilibrate if they
were attached by a tube, winds blow "down the valley" from higher pressure
towards lower pressure. These surface winds therefore provide the colder arctic air
necessary for freezing rain, highlighting the importance of the valley. At the same
time, cyclones, which spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, provide
the warm moist air aloft.

Previous researchers had focused primarily on the roles of cyclones in freezing rain.
However, I decided to focus on the role of anticyclones, given that they seemed to be a necessary requirement for extended periods of freezing rain. After analyzing 47
severe freezing rain events (lasting ≥ 6h) at Quebec city, my results did indeed show
that a strong indicator to the duration of severe events is the strength and location
of the anticyclone. In fact, a change of phase into a different form of precipitation
(rain, snow, etc) occurred once the anticyclone either weakened or moved off-shore.
This phase change was shown to be accompanied by a weakening of surface winds,
which would either indicate a weakening pressure gradient and/or a complete shift
in wind direction, indicating a pressure gradient reversal.

These are the results I describe in detail in my paper entitled The role of anticylones
in replenishing surface cold air and modulating freezing rain duration, which won the
international award in the Agriculture and Environmental Sciences category of the
Undergraduate Awards. This was my final submission as an undergraduate. It has
been both trying and exhilarating. Anyone who has done research will understand
the moment of elation that comes with finally getting a breakthrough. And of the
great many other things that have come out of three years of research, from building
incredible relationships with professors and peers to presenting my work at
conferences, the Undergraduate Awards will always be a highlight of my academic
career. Currently, the work has been extended in hopes of publishing a paper
that would provide meteorologists with probabilistic brackets that would greatly
enhance their ability to forecast both the onset and the duration of freezing rain
through the entire Saint-Lawrence River Valley. I am both humbled and honored to
have received such incredible recognition, and am looking forward to sharing this
experience with fellow researchers at the official ceremony in Dublin.

Read more about the Undergraduate Awards.