UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Let it snow, let it blow, let drifts grow

UND professor, students to conduct one of largest blowing-snow field-research projects ever

Aaron Kennedy maintains instruments for his winter weather research. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Aaron Kennedy, UND associate professor of atmospheric sciences, a $400,000 grant to further his research on the blowing snow that leads to ground blizzards, a common wintertime hazard in the Northern Great Plains.

As recent severe winter weather in the Red River Valley has demonstrated, the effects of blizzards and ground blizzards can have a profound effect on lives, safety, travel and the transportation system in general.

Aaron Kennedy, UND associate professor

“What we’ve found over the years is that forecasting these events is very challenging and extremely variable,” said Kennedy, the project’s principal investigator. “Sometimes it’s the northern Red River Valley that gets the greatest impacts, sometimes it’s the southern valley and other times it’s even more localized.

“The weather modeling and observation effort that we’re conducting in this proposal will hopefully lead to better forecasts of these events,” he explained.

The project will investigate the structure of blowing snow layers and the roles that terrain, atmospheric state, and sublimation – the change from ice as a solid into gas – have on the evolution of these events. Observations will be made in and around eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

“We’re taking all the lessons we’ve learned over the last few years to conduct the largest field campaign on blowing snow in this region, and possibly anywhere,” Kennedy said. “We’ll have students launching weather balloons into blizzards and during blowing snow events in Grand Forks.

“We’ll have some really unique instrumentation,” Kennedy noted. “They include the snowflake cameras I’ve built and a balloon-borne version of it we’re currently building. We want to see what these snow and ice particles look like throughout the atmosphere.”

Traditional radiosondes in weather balloons and vertically pointing lidars will make observations to evaluate and improve blowing snow parameters within the forecasting model. (Lidar is a remote sensing method that uses laser light.) The improved model will be applied to identify the key aspects that determine blowing snow behavior.

The research funded by the National Science Foundation will enable UND winter weather researcher Aaron Kennedy to continue his his work on blowing snow, using the the cameras he built to record the structures of snow flakes and ice crystals in the air. Photo courtesy Aaron Kennedy.

Graduate and undergraduate students will be involved in the field work, analysis of data, numerical modeling and deployment of hydrometeor imagers to other academic institutions. The project will promote other public outreach efforts and includes partners such as state tribal colleges and the National Weather Service.

The grant begins March 1 and runs through fiscal year 2023.

“The work we’re doing is bare-bones, basic research to understand the process,” Kennedy said. “We can then model the effects of blowing snow and make the argument that we need to update the weather models. That should give forecasters a better picture of what will happen and enable them to issue better watches and warnings during the winter.”