If an armada of scientists in weird vehicles rolls into your town this weekend, you might want to take cover.
A University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is leading a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles carrying nearly 60 researchers — including 13 UNL students — on a multistate hunt for supercell thunderstorms.
Their search kicked off this week in Salina, Kansas. The convoy was headed for west-central Nebraska on Friday afternoon. Portions of that area were under a tornado watch. Nebraska is bracing for several days of stormy weather.
Team members will deploy drones, radar trucks, sensor-laden SUVs, sensor-carrying balloons and an airplane to simultaneously surround a storm and collect data.
They hope to learn more about how tornadoes form, improve forecasting and ultimately save lives by helping meteorologists make earlier and more accurate tornado warnings.
Adam Houston, UNL professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, said the team he leads is looking for tornado “fingerprints.”
“We’re forensic meteorologists, in a way,” Houston said.
The TORUS project, or Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells, will be a two-year effort covering 367,000 square miles of America’s Great Plains. The scientists will hunt storms in an area that runs from North Dakota to Texas, Wyoming to Iowa.
The project, funded by $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is one of the most ambitious storm surveillance projects ever to use drones, Houston said.
The team includes scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Texas Tech University and the University of Oklahoma.
A supercell is an often-dangerous thunderstorm with a very organized internal structure, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, a partner in the project.
Supercells are capable of producing severe weather, high winds, large hail and strong tornadoes.
The cells have rotating updraft that allows them to keep going for several hours.
When the scientists in the armada locate a storm, they will attack it from multiple angles.
Three drones carrying sensors will take measurements from the air.
On the ground, the team has three mobile radars on trucks and eight mobile mesonets, which are basically trucks rigged with instruments that take surface observations of temperature, pressure, humidity, wind and solar radiation. UNL students helped to modify the vehicles.
A van with on-board helium tanks will allow researchers to launch sensor-carrying balloons within a few minutes of arriving at a location.
The team also has a laser radar.
And if that’s not enough, the team can call in a NOAA “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft.
The four-propeller, turboprop WP-3D Orion is equipped with scientific instruments, radars and recording systems for taking measurements.
Houston said each of the team’s instruments, by itself, can record only part of what’s going on in a storm. But the instruments collecting information simultaneously will provide a better picture of what’s going on, he said.
The team’s drones are nothing like the compact hobby drones that fly with spinning rotors on top, said Eric Frew, a professor in the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
His drones, formally called fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, have a 6-foot wingspan and look more like a conventional airplane, Frew said. They fly for 90 minutes to three hours.
Unlike the movie “Twister,” where storm-chasing scientists risked their lives to deploy sensors into the swirling tornado column itself, the team will be focusing on the edges of the storm, trying to figure out what feeds it, he said.
The drones, thrown into the sky from pneumatic car-top launchers, won’t be flying into the heart of the storm, but that doesn’t mean smooth sailing, he said.
“It’s just dangerous enough that you don’t want to risk a piloted aircraft,” he said.
Frew said the team fully expects all the drones to return safely to fly another day.
The researchers will not be disappointed if some storms don’t produce tornadoes, he said. The scientists need the data to compare with the tornado-producing storms and identify what’s different, he said.
“Most of the violent tornadoes come out of supercell thunderstorms,” he said. “But very few supercell thunderstorms actually create tornadoes.”
The primary goal, Frew said, is to gain a better understanding of how tornadoes form, with the idea of helping create better forecasting tools to give people more time to take cover.
“The weather community talks about the goal of a one-hour warning,” he said. “That’s the goal that we’re working towards.”
Every morning, the team will get a weather briefing on the day’s conditions plus how the weather’s shaping up for the next day.
The team could drive four to seven hours on a given day before they actually deploy.
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They prefer to stake out areas that have a good road network, he said.
While they are on the road, a designated person is figuring out where to find hotel rooms.
The team members usually are spread out in multiple hotels.
Most of the time, when they roll into a town, the locals are happy to have the business.
“It’s funny,” Frew said. “We either get that reaction or we get the other reaction, which is, ‘Oh my goodness, if you’re here that means bad weather’s coming, please go away.’ ”
It’s 6:33 a.m. when we start pedaling our bikes for downtown.
We have a long way to go.
We’re in Millard. At 131st and Q Streets. Downtown is 150 or so blocks away. And our first move is toward Sarpy County, which, if you know anything about Omaha’s geography, is not in the direction of downtown. Oh, and the rain just started.
But Josh Corrigan knows this route. It’s his everyday commute from Millard to his job at the Metro Area Planning Agency just outside Creighton’s campus. On National Bike to Work Day, Corrigan is one of the experienced guides leading a group of cyclists on a journey to see if commuting by bicycle just might work for them.
Omaha has a small group of bike commuters — a fraction of a percent of all the people who commute. In all, Omaha has about 700 bicyclists total, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and Denver have developed a much deeper bike commuting crowd and better biking networks. Thousands of cyclists bike to work there, even with the rugged winters.
But Omaha is a city thinking about ways to change its transportation system, maybe even taking some steps away from our dependence on the car. So could biking to work become a thing?
We have a long way to go.
Based on my one-day experience and a week talking to people about this issue, I can report: If we want to get more people commuting by bike, we can get there.
My ride Friday wasn’t easy. It went out of the way — turns out a ride to get from Millard to downtown can go through a few other communities besides Omaha.
But it was safe. And though the two-hour, 17-mile ride was a lot of work, it was actually pretty enjoyable, offering glimpses of the city in a way I never experience.
“It’s so fun,” fellow rider Karen Allen said as our trio pulled up to the City-County Building.
Allen is an experienced bicyclist, enough that she’ll captain First National Bank’s Bike MS: Nebraska ride this September. That’s, ahem, a 150-mile bike ride for her. But she’s never completed a bike ride to work and decided to join the ride just a couple days ago.
“This is so fun.”
Right now, Omaha is in a place where it needs to do something different if it wants to get more people riding to work. Bike advocates believe that we have a large group of recreational cyclists who might be willing to take a next step given the right conditions.
Friday’s ride was part of that; organizers wanted to break the ice for potential bike commuters by showing them the routes and offering a friendly welcome into the community.
Julie Harris, executive director of the group Bike Walk Nebraska, breaks down the types of bicyclists this way, based on national research:
“That’s who we need to get riding,” Harris said of the last group.
Sarah Johnson, owner of Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson, says she talks with that type of cyclist every day, people who tell her “how they wish they felt safer on the streets.”
“If you look at other cities, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Johnson said. “We just have to adopt policies that work elsewhere.”
Breaking news: One of those projects is coming as soon as this summer.
Cyclists want a stretch of street where a bike lane receives a dedicated, protected, buffered section of the street away from car traffic. That’s been the trend for cities trying to encourage bicyclist traffic, and it’s a step beyond the basic striped bicyclist lanes that Omaha has tried around downtown.
The City of Omaha is preparing to implement a pilot project this summer to create an on-street protected lane that could work for bikes, scooters or pedestrians, said Kevin Andersen, Mayor Jean Stothert’s deputy chief of staff for economic development and development services.
Andersen wasn’t prepared to say where the temporary protected lane would go. But he said the city is looking at the project as part of a local “Smart Cities” effort and would study data on usage of the corridor to see what functions best and is safest.
Harris said change will come incrementally, even if some in the cycling community want it to happen faster. Her group is working with the city on the pilot project, but she also couldn’t discuss details.
“We’re very excited about it,” she said.
I was a little nervous to join the Omaha Bikes event. I read about the local event last Friday, and told Ben Turner I was thinking about joining in. Turner is a leader in the local cycling community and executive director of Heartland Bike Share. His response, “That is super exciting!”
The effort set up nine rides from around the Omaha metro area: north Omaha, South Omaha, Gifford Park, Aksarben, Dundee, Council Bluffs, Bellevue, Papillion and Millard. I live at 168th Street and Giles Road in Sarpy County, but the Millard trailhead is pretty close for me.
My first question for the organizers: Where in the world is the route from Millard to downtown? I grew up in Millard, too, and I’ve always wondered what it would take to ride that distance.
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Enter Corrigan, the Millard route leader.
Corrigan has been biking to work from his neighborhood around 144th and Q Streets for four years. He’s forged the path. He tried the bad options and rode on Q Street while trusting that cars would go around him. He’s also the GIS (geographic information system) mapping coordinator with MAPA and knew where to look for viable biking options.
Last year, when the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District opened a trail at 131st and Q, Corrigan decided the trade-off of a few extra miles was worth the extra safety to get away from the street and fewer hills.
He can ride the route in about an hour and 15 minutes.
“It’s usually a pretty pleasant experience,” he said.
As the rain clouds gathered Friday morning, our ride looked to be less than pleasant. But the rain is nothing new to the other riders. This newbie? I was equipped as best as I knew, considering my recent riding experience comes from spin class.
Welp, here goes.
The first leg takes our initial group of four 3 miles southeast into La Vista at 108th Street and Giles Road. Our fourth rider, Kim Rempel, peels off on her nifty electric-assist bike for work at TurnKey Solutions, and the three of us — Corrigan, Allen and I — make our first move off trail.
For the next couple of miles, Corrigan leads us through La Vista on continuous, low-volume neighborhood streets. We rarely have traffic on our backs.
By about 7 a.m., we’re at 84th and Harrison Streets, crossing from La Vista into Ralston. It’s down Ralston Avenue, whose diagonal turn offers a rare sight in Omaha — a nearly perfect view of downtown’s Woodmen Tower and First National Bank directly on angle.
Corrigan leads us along the Ralston Trail, along 72nd Street past Ralston Arena, down the Big Papio Creek trail and around the Karen Western neighborhood as I realize we’re getting pretty far east. But I’m lagging, and Allen calls back: “How are you doing, Jeff?”
Me: “Hanging in there.”
Interstate 80 is in sight now, and we skirt it on the South Omaha Trail before ducking under the Interstate at the Vinton Street grain elevators. We’ve made it to 35th Street and the place nearby where my Prius commute on the Interstate turns me into downtown.
So we’re close.
From there, we go north up the Field Club Trail, pass the Field Club country club and the VA Medical Center, then go down Woolworth Avenue to see the fantastic houses in the Field Club neighborhood.
At Turner Boulevard, we glide down the S-curve before taking a break to see if any other riders might join us for the last leg.
Allen is enjoying the ride. “That’s pretty cool,” she said.
Our route then heads down Leavenworth Street and through downtown; it’s the only part of the entire ride where we’re riding in traffic. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I definitely felt more exposed, even if Leavenworth has a section striped off for bicyclists.
We rolled in to the City-County Building at 8:33 a.m. to a little cheer, even if we were soggy and muddy. Corrigan did the ride like it was nothing. His route takes us up 786 feet in elevation. One word came to mind watching him ride ahead of me: comfortable.
I asked Allen: Would she ride it again?
“Yeah, oh yeah,” she said. “When are we doing it again?”
It’s a similar question for Omaha: Do we want people to commute this way more often?
If so, it’s going to take more safe biking corridors. The Omaha metro area has developed what’s considered a top-notch recreational trail system, which works great if you want to get in a long ride creekside.
But we need more connections between those, sometimes on streets. The trail connections are an issue the NRD is focusing on, said John Winkler, the local NRD’s general manager, adding that commuting could be the next phase of growth for the trails.
“We’ve got these great recreational trails,” he said. “Now let’s connect them.”
The City of Omaha has bike lanes envisioned in street projects meant to slim down vehicle traffic on South 24th Street and North 30th Street. The city’s capital improvement plan indicates that the bike lanes are the basic striped barrier, not a built buffer.
Turner is one advocate pushing for fully separated lanes somewhere.
“It would be the obvious next step for our community,” he said.
Friday’s Bike to Work rides drew a few dozen bicylists, and a few new people trying it out. Thunderstorms didn’t help encourage people to jump in.
But as I came back to work, sopping wet and wearing a bike helmet to crown my achievement, I met Erin Hartigan on the elevator. She and her husband, Ben, took the Bellevue route to their jobs at National Indemnity in my building. They’re recreational bicyclists and tried the ride to work for the first time, no matter the rain.
“We’ll definitely be doing it again.”
APEX, N.C. - All the counseling, therapy and medication did little to ease 9-year-old Sobie Cummings' crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. And so a psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help the child connect with other kids.
To Glenn and Rachel Cummings, Mark Mathis seemed like a dream come true. His kennel, Ry-Con Service Dogs, was just a couple of hours away, and he, too, had a child with autism. But what clinched the decision were Mathis' credentials.
"Is Ry-Con a certified program? Yes," stated an online brochure.
Ten months and $14,500 later, the family brought home a shaggy mop of a dog that Sobie had come to view as her "savior." But when they opened the front door, Okami broke from Glenn Cummings' grasp and began mauling one of the family's elderly dogs — all as Sobie watched from the stairs in horror.
It was only after they had returned Okami and asked for a refund that the family learned the truth: Mathis was not a state-certified dog trainer. In fact, North Carolina has no such certification program — and neither does any other state.
The service dog industry — particularly in the field of "psychiatric" service dogs for people with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder — has exploded in recent years. But a near complete absence of regulation and oversight has left distraught families vulnerable to incompetence and fraud.
"It is a lawless area. The Wild West," said David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University and editor of its Animal Legal and Historical Center website.
Properly training a service dog can take up to 1½years and cost upward of $50,000, depending on the tasks it is taught to perform. But the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require that a service dog be professionally trained or certified. And, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, local and state agencies are prohibited from requiring that the dogs be registered. "It needs to be specially trained to do tasks that relate to the person's disability, but it doesn't say anything about who does the training or the quality of training or the efficacy of it," said Lynette Hart, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis. "So it's a very broad, wide-open barn door."
The ADA allows people to train their own service dogs. But Hart, who has co-authored studies of the industry, said most don't have the time, wherewithal or confidence to do so, and that puts needy families "in a calamitous situation." "They're easy prey," said Hart, whose late brother had autism.
In 2012, the State of Illinois sued Lea Kaydus and Animals for Autism over a "heartless scam" in which she took several thousand dollars from families but never matched them with dogs. Kaydus was ordered to pay restitution.
Two years ago, Noelle's Dogs Four Hope of Colorado Springs agreed to surrender its license after state inspectors confirmed the placement of dogs with "incontinence, lack of basic house training, separation anxiety and aggression."
And last year, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed suit against Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers Inc. The lawsuit alleges that diabetes-alert dogs, for which Warren charged up to $27,000, "were often poorly trained, ill-behaved, and unequipped to help manage a life-threatening situation, rendering them little more than incredibly expensive pets."
Attorneys for owner Charles D. Warren Jr. say the state's case is based on the complaints of "a few disgruntled and fanatical consumers." A trial date has not been set.
In North Carolina, authorities are now investigating Ry-Con.
The Cummings family wasn't the first to have problems with Ry-Con. In November 2017, Christian and Shannon Poirier said the dog Mathis sold them bit their son Daniel, 11, who has autism. After repeated requests for a refund, they sued him in small claims court and won.
The Cummings case never got that far. On Nov. 13, Mathis sent an email to clients announcing that he was closing. The following day, he filed for bankruptcy protection.
In an email, Mathis insisted that his troubles all stemmed from recent financial issues.
State Attorney General Josh Stein's office has received more than four dozen complaints against Ry-Con. Some customers said they arrived at Ry-Con to find dogs emaciated, skittish and matted with urine and feces. Many said their pups lunged and nipped at children and other animals, weren't housetrained and could not respond to basic commands.
Nancy Evans said her daughter, Katie, 19, had waited more than a year for her dog, Bailey. Katie suffered from severe PTSD and anxiety.
Once home with them in Toronto, Evans said, the dog showed extreme aggression toward Katie's older brother. An expert who examined Bailey declared her unfit for service, and a rescue group took her away.
About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide. Her mother is convinced things would have been different had Bailey worked out.
THAT GUNK ON YOUR CAR
For this summer's road trips, skip the license plate game and 100th viewing of "National Lampoon's Vacation" and try a new diversion we'll call Name That Splat.
All you need is a windshield, some unlucky bugs and the app created by University of Florida professor Mark Hostetler and his son, Bryce, a college student. The two have released That Gunk on Your Car, a free IOS app that helps amateur etymologists identify the road kill on their windshields.
The app contains several features, including an illustrated guide to identifying bug splats, a glossary and car games, such as My Side/Your Side (each player claims a section of windshield and accumulates "points") and Insect Art (plastic wrap required).
We recently spoke with the inventors about the app. Here is an edited version of the conversation:
Q:What was the inspiration for the app?
Mark:It came from a book I wrote about how to identify insect splats on windshields. It was a way to hook people into reading about insects.
Q:How does the app work?
Bryce:The idea was to make it as easy as possible to use if you suddenly came across a splat and to give you a quick idea of what (the insect) could be. You are presented with various splats and a thumbnail for each one. You can search them by different characteristics.
Q:How many bugs do you list?
Bryce:We have 24 broad categories.
Q:How did you compile the information?
Mark:I collected the data years ago by hanging out at Greyhound bus stations. When the buses came in, the splats were flat and straight, so I could look at them and see a part of the insect. They were pretty amused that I was asking permission to clean the insects off their windshields. With a (smaller) vehicle, the insects ricochet up over the top. I put a net over my car and drove cross-country. Whenever I had a splat, I would pull over to the side of the road and look in my net to see what it was. The net was quite the conversation piece at the gas stations.
Q:How did you choose the bugs featured in the app?
Mark:I picked the ones that were most numerous.
Bryce:We have general categories of bugs that you will find across all the different states and are not specific to one state.
Q:Are splats consistent or do they vary by the car's speed or windshield shape?
Mark:Even though there is a lot of variability among each splat, you can narrow it down to a couple of different options. You can also look at distribution and time of the year to get a better idea of what it probably was.
Q:What is the peak season for splats?
Mark:The warm months, spring and summer, and at night.
Q:Do you typically see one kind of bug splat or a potpourri?
Mark:If it is love bug season, then you tend to get a lot of the same kind. But you will typically get mosquitoes and flies, some butterflies and moths, and beetles and dragonflies. You get quite a mixture.
Q:What's the best way to remove bug gunk?
Mark:Soap, water and a mesh sponge work. Don't wait till they get baked on.