John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences

News and information from the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Mark Askelson: snow catcher (University Newsletter 2/17/15)

Calling all snowflakes! We want you to be a star.

All you have to do is land in Mark Askelson’s very cool snowflake house.

Lined with sensors that’ll get a good look at you, the box helps Askelson and his students get a closer handle on your marvelous six-pointed, infinitely variable molecular structure.

This is no melting fantasy.

Askelson, a faculty members in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences Department of Atmospheric Sciences, is keen to understand the intricate physics that form snowflakes in the atmosphere and their destiny on the ground, in storms, and as some of nature’s loveliest artifacts.

“I’m interested in learning a lot more about snowflakes and snow because they have such an impact on travel in our region,” said Askelson, who also is a weather radar expert.  “There are many different forms of snow—some of them really dangerous—with different impacts on drivers.”

“We want cleaner safer roads and excellent driving conditions, that’s part of my motivation for this research,” Askelson said. “With a better understanding of snowflakes, we’ll more clearly understand how they affect visibility on the roads.”

As Askelson notes, snow doesn’t just fall.

“Some of it doesn’t stay on the ground, some of it reaches the ground but then it’s lofted again by the wind and moves around,” Askelson said. “Eventually we’ll know enough about snow to make detailed accurate predictions about it and that will enhance ‘intelligent’ transportation systems.”

“We have a pretty good handle on snow events now to make predictions about snowfall, but the challenge for forecasters is to predict accurately where and when we’ll get blowing snow, reduced visibility, and whether a given snow event will develop into a blizzard,” said Askelson, who grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Askelson, who received his Ph.D. from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma in 2002, holds two bachelor’s degrees, meteorology and mathematics, from UND. His recent research focuses on surface transportation weather, including storm dynamics.

Early on, his curiosity about snow storms got him wondering why the predictions could be so far off, why just a small diversion in a predicted storm track could result in zero snow when several inches were expected. That early interest in storm meteorology also got him connected to the effect of weather on surface transportation and driving conditions.

“For years now, I’ve worked in surface transportation weather research, winter storm systems, and precipitation processes, so with this research the potential is there to help people,” Askelson said. “Snow comes in many different forms, and different forms affect visibility differently. Rapid variations in conditions are the most dangerous.”

Among the tools that Askelson and his students developed is a home-made plywood-framed box with clear plastic window and several LED lights – with a calibrated opening on top, the snow catcher – and a gate flap on one side so the researchers can access the lights and snow tray inside. The snowflakes fall onto a flat piece of black cloth where they are illuminated and photographed – those images are then analyzed.

“We have this interest in knowing more about snowflakes because, ultimately, we want to make winter travel much safer,” Askelson said.