Skycams give bird’s-eye view of UND’s weather

Weather Channel regularly features Atmospheric Sciences camera atop Clifford Hall

Aaron Kennedy, UND associate professor of atmospheric sciences, adjusts the Skycam on top of Clifford Hall. On YouTube, the high-resolution video camera livestreams weather approaching Grand Forks from the west. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Aaron Kennedy’s office on the fourth floor of Clifford Hall provides a panoramic view of the western skyline of Grand Forks, a real perk for a UND atmospheric scientist who studies severe weather.

If he wants an even better view, clicking on a web link on his computer takes Kennedy to the Department of Atmospheric Sciences Skycam located on the building’s roof. One need not be a weather researcher to take advantage of this resource. The live Skycam view is available 24 hours a day on the department’s YouTube channel to anyone with internet access.

“I think it’s good for the community to understand that we have a department on campus that works in this area,” Kennedy said. “We’re here to answer questions. That’s part a university’s purpose – to be the center of knowledge. If we can answer people’s questions about what they see in the sky and provide some education, that’s part of our mission.”

As seen on the Weather Channel

In fact, video from the UND’s Skycam is regularly featured on the Weather Channel. Sometimes it’s a live view showing the current conditions in Grand Forks and other times it’s recorded video of weather phenomena, ranging from meteors to severe weather events to unusual cloud formations.

“Sometimes they show sunny skies in North Dakota,” Kennedy said. “I usually find out about it when my dad sends me a screen shot and says, ‘Hey look what I saw on the Weather Channel today!’”

There’s no formal agreement with the Weather Channel. Kennedy said not long after the Skycam went live three years ago, someone from the Weather Channel contacted him about using the livestream.

“I told them to make sure you put the University of North Dakota on it – preferably UND Atmospheric Sciences, so prospective students see it,” he explained. “They like watching various weather channels. When it shows up on air, you never know who’s going to see it.”

The Skycam on top of UND’s Clifford Hall provides a live view of weather in Grand Forks that’s shown regularly on the Weather Channel. It’s available through the UND Department of Atmospheric Sciences YouTube Channel.

Recently, the addition of a new higher-resolution camera enabled Kennedy to meet requests for an east-facing Skycam showing the view down University Avenue toward East Grand Forks.

“The first day or two, there were a bunch of comments from people saying they were happy we had a Skycam looking east,” he noted. “Someone said, ‘I can see my house!’ Once we put it up, there was a lot of feedback in the chat. People are appreciative of having it.”

Livestreaming channels on YouTube have chat rooms where viewers can discuss what they’re seeing, a feature over which Kennedy has no control and which he views as something as a mystery. Usually when there are severe weather events in the Grand Forks area, the discussion is about local weather. But at other times, the discussion is in foreign languages about topics unknown.

“I’m just impressed that there are folks across the world seeing what’s going on in this random place and using the chat room to talk,” Kennedy laughed.

In addition, time-lapsed video of various weather events and cloud formations recorded by the Skycam is frequently used in classrooms throughout the Atmospheric Sciences department.

Meteorology basics

“One of my classes is physical meteorology, which essentially teaches students how to explain to their parents and grandparents what they just saw in the sky,” Kennedy said. “If a weather event happened the previous day, we’ll show the Skycam video to them. Seeing the evolution over time is really handy when looking at optical phenomena like sundogs and rainbows. It’s a good learning tool.

“I’ve got a publication in a journal with screenshots from the Skycam,” he continued. “It’s even scientifically used, which is pretty cool.”

Sometimes people contact Kennedy about an event they think the Skycam might have recorded. It could be a meteor falling from the sky or an accident at the intersection of University Avenue and 42nd Street.

“The Skycam provides high-resolution video, but it’s focused on the sky,” Kennedy noted. “It can’t recognize individual people and it can’t read license plates. Some people think it’s like Big Brother in the sky, but what it can actually see is very limited.”

The Department of Atmospheric Sciences recently added a Skycam pointed east. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Maintaining the two Skycams isn’t difficult, according to Kennedy. Usually all that’s required is wiping spots off the lenses after a rain and routinely downloading the video from the flash memory cards.

The inspiration for the Skycam occurred when Kennedy was a graduate student at UND. A landspout, which looks like a tornado but is more similar to a giant dust devil, formed west of Grand Forks.

“Half the building saw it and I was in the half that didn’t see it,” he recalled. “When I became a member of the faculty, I thought maybe I could try crowd funding the Skycam. It was one of the earlier projects when UND first started using that platform.”

Kennedy is hopeful that the Department of Atmospheric Sciences YouTube channel will reach 1 million views before the end of the year. For the future, he’d like to have a more sophisticated Skycam that can be remotely aimed and zoomed in on weather events.

In the meantime, Kennedy encourages UND students and their parents to make use of the Skycam. The west-facing camera now provides live weather observations from the Grand Forks International Airport.

“Parents can see the weather their kids are experiencing,” he said. “I tell students to pull up the Skycam on YouTube to see what the weather is like and plan accordingly. You can pretty much make a complete forecast for how to dress when you leave for class that morning.”