Hail Raiser

STS Students, Atmospheric Science Students

By Madisen Lindholm

As a weather lover, I always fangirl when a big storm rolls through. I love going outside or chasing it (safely) and seeing all aspects of the storm. Sometimes before a thunderstorm that will produce hail, mammatus clouds form. Mammatus clouds are bubbly in appearance, and are considered unique, but we often see them in the Black Hills. These are my favorite clouds due to how unique they are and how telling of the storm components they are.

Clouds against a blue sky. The sky is visible at the bottom of the image and above that dark, bubbly mammatus clouds take up most of the image.
This image was taken last summer from Rushmore Crossing. Up at the top of the image are the dark, bubbly mammatus clouds. Mammatus clouds typically foreshadow hail, and are rare in most areas, but are somewhat common during the summer in South Dakota.

I especially love the aftereffects of a thunderstorm. The stillness in the air, the rainbows, the smell of freshly fallen rain, and the glow of the atmosphere are all amazing to me. It also amazes me how much energy storms produce and use as they race across the plains of South Dakota, dropping rain, wind, hail, and lightning as they go. One storm that particularly amazes me is one that occurred on July 23rd, 2010, in Vivian, SD. This storm produced the largest hailstone ever recorded in the United States (3D printed model pictured above). This hailstone is 8 inches in diameter, 18.6 inches in circumference and weighs nearly 2 pounds! Imagine that hitting your house!

Because I have always loved severe weather, I knew my senior research topic needed to be in that category. I especially find hail fascinating, so I decided to use hail as my main topic. South Dakota summer thunderstorms are known for the hail they bring. From car damage, broken windows, roof damage, livestock casualties, plant damage, and human casualties, hail causes many problems. As a lifelong South Dakotan, there have been many times I have been out and about when suddenly I get a National Weather Service emergency warning about hail, but by that point it is too late to move my car into a safe area. Over the years, it has seemed like hail has increased in frequency and size on a regular basis. For example, last summer it seemed like the majority of storms brought at least pea-sized hail, where just a decade ago I remember hail being a more special occurrence. This struck me as an important hypothesis to address because as climate change becomes worse hail will, too, so I figured it would make for an interesting capstone project.

To Dust We Shall Return?

Atmospheric Science Students, STS Students

By Lillian Knudtson

Weather affects all people, and it is important for meteorologists to understand a wide range of events to communicate effectively to the public. My capstone is a project designed to dissect a particularly interesting phenomenon, especially to South Dakota. I have chosen to do a case study of a particular dust storm known as a haboob. The storm I am focusing on occurred May 12th, 2022, and it impacted the eastern part of South Dakota. A widespread, long-lived thunderstorm called a derecho created the haboob beginning in the south central portion of Nebraska and traveled north and east towards Sioux Falls. It sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, and the highest recorded winds of the event were 107 miles per hour. This storm is a good example of what is possible and can become a sample case for the future.

Photo of giant reddish-brown dust cloud blowing in from the right side of the image, approaching a playground and a few people watching it.

A haboob is a giant dust storm. It is named after the Arabic word habb, meaning “blown.” This type of storm is most common in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where is it historically arid. But haboobs are also well known in the Southwestern United States and are becoming an occurrence in previously unlikely places as well. Haboobs are created from loose particles that are picked up by strong winds caused by storms like monsoons or derechos sweeping across the surface of the earth. The massive amount of precipitation associated with these events evaporate, which is a cooling process, so cool air called a gust front accelerates out in front of the storm at a fast rate, picking up particles and building a wall of air and dirt. The particles are mostly less than 10 micrometer pieces of dirt, dust, and sand, but they can be as large as a pea, and the wind can pick up other debris along with it. These walls of air and dirt can reach grow to 5000 feet tall and 100 miles wide, and they can move at 60 miles an hour (Eagar, Herckes, Hartnett, 2016). Overall it is a phenomenon that is quite terrifying.

It Spins Me Right Round: What’s The Big Deal With Tornadoes?

Atmospheric Science Students, Environment, STS Students

By Cory Schultz

If you look at the annual average number of tornadoes per country, the United States reigns supreme, whether we like it or not. And if we look at South Dakota, the state is not without its share of tornadic activity. For instance, as Dennis Todey, Jay Trobec, and H. Michael Mogil write, “A massive outbreak of tornadoes placed the state in the severe weather record book on the evening of June 24, 2003” (19). On that day, sixty-seven tornadoes touched down over a 6-hour period, a single-state record tornado occurrence.

So, you may be thinking to yourself right now, “I live in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. We don’t have a problem with tornadoes.” Well, what if I told you that tornado activity has increased in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota in the last decade? This increase in activity is not typical for the Northern Black Hills, since only nine tornadoes have been reported in this region since NOAA started gathering tornado data in 1950. What makes this even more alarming is that, of these nine cases, four have occurred in the last decade. This increase is the focus of my capstone with my two-part research question: Do the Northern Black Hills tornadoes that occurred in 2015, 2018, and 2020 have any similar characteristics to each other? Will this help determine when new tornadoes will form over the same region? 

Map of the Black Hills showing tornado tracks and the strength of the tornadoes. A handful are circled west of Lead, SD.
Map of Northern Black Hills tornado tracks and strengths on the EF scale. Red circles indicate tornadoes being researched for this capstone. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Influence Arts-Based Instruction May Have on STEM Students

STS Students

By Elizabeth Benzmiller

Elizabeth Benzmiller is a senior in the Science, Technology, and Society: Policy & Law Major.  Throughout her time as a student at South Dakota Mines, she studied abroad in Limerick, Ireland, participated and held leadership roles in student organizations, and interned at the South Dakota Legislature and Raven Industries/Viaflex, Inc.

I was raised by two polar opposite parents. One chose a STEM career, worked in healthcare and laboratories, and was a very analytical and logical thinker. The other was a professional artist, singer, ballroom dance instructor, writer, and more. Growing up, I was able to see first hand how a STEM professional and an artist communicate and view the world very differently! One parent was a logical, straight to the point teacher who learned from a textbook and lectures, while the other was a creative, adventurous, empath who learned through experiences in their life.  

Photo of Elizabeth and her family.
This is my family in Italy, while we were visiting my sister while she performed in an opera. She did this before she graduated college with a degree in Computer Science and Data Analytics. From left to right, Sonya (older sister), Elizabeth (myself), Vincent (younger brother), James (father), and TracieLea (mother).

I was taught the importance of the arts and STEM from a young age and told I didn’t need to choose between the fields. From a young age, I was playing instruments, singing in proper form, reading like a true bookworm, and looking for any opportunity to get crafty and creative. We would have Craft Thursdays and Field Trip Fridays, exploring museums and historical centers, trying new things, and seeing the world from a new perspective each week. At the same time, I was encouraged to ask questions, research the world around me, explore nature and get my hands dirty.  I could build rockets, play with Legos, and learn how to use a microscope. I could travel the world and see new sights, cultures, and experience new things.

Every day, I was encouraged to explore my passions and be a lifelong learner. I didn’t have to choose between the Arts and STEM, and I was a more well-rounded individual because I could do both. I eventually decided to study in a STEM-field, but I never wanted to lose my grasp on influences that the arts had on me and I wanted to explore their interactions with the scientific community. This led me to my senior capstone project researching the influence and impact that arts-based instruction has on engineering and STEM undergraduate students. 

The Impact of Being a Firefighter on Mental Health 

STS Students

By Otutoa Afu

Otutoa Afu is majoring in Science, Technology, and Society. He plans to pursue a career in the fire service once done with school. 

After completing the fire academy in 2018, I was fortunate enough to get hired as a full time firefighter at the El Medio Fire Department out of South Oroville, California. At that time I was just a 19-year-old growing boy who never knew his life was going to change due to the fire service. Working as a firefighter, people have always thought about the cool things you get to do, from playing with the “jaws of life” to going to elementary school and playing hero for the young ones. But nobody ever told us about the bad things that came with being a firefighter. 

Three firefighters standing in front of a fire truck.

(Left to right) Otutoa Afu, Senior Firefighter Shawn Perez, Captain Jeffery Gamble.

After accepting my football scholarship here at South Dakota Mines, I left my job in California and joined the Rapid Valley Fire Department student resident program here in South Dakota. The student resident program is where you get to live at the fire station and run calls. You also need to be enrolled as a full time student and maintain a certain GPA. 

Because of my strong interest in firefighting, it was a good fit to explore firefighter mental health for my capstone project. The stress faced by firefighters throughout the course of their careers can be hard on mental health and well-being. This stress can be caused by incidents involving children, violence, inherent dangers of firefighting, and other traumatic events. For instance, you might roll up on a head-to-head traffic collision involving two vehicles, a family of five vs. drunk driver that leaves the parents dead. Later in the same shift, you can get called out for a suicidal patient to walk in on the patient hanging themselves. Some may say firefighters know what they are getting into, but that does not make them immune to developing mental health issues.

For my capstone project, I want to explore how firefighters are affected by their job and how fire departments address mental health. I will approach these topics by analyzing journals, scientific papers on mental health, and other reliable sources from those that are in the field or have been in the field. Hopefully this can help me summarize what the best coping tools or even shift schedules can be best for firefighters and their well-being and share with fire departments around the nation, maybe even internationally. All in all, firefighters are always there when called, and we should be there to help them, too. 

Is Driving in the Snow Really that Dangerous?

STS Students

By Jake Lindblom

Jake Lindblom is majoring in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences with a minor in Geospatial Technology. He plans to study atmospheric science in graduate school after earning his bachelor’s degree.

As most Rapid City residents know, snow can be quite a pain to drive in. The roads are treacherous, it’s hard to see, and it just feels dangerous. As a driver, you may presume that more snow on the road equates to more hazardous driving conditions, but does this mean more crashes actually occur? Might you, as a driver, try to avoid those hazardous conditions and choose to stay at home? Furthermore, while you may think you can handle driving in small, frequent snow events, could this be a false confidence?

These are some of the questions I’m trying to answer in my research project. As a student in the Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences Program, I’m interested in operations research, or how to apply what we know about the atmosphere to the “real world” for the benefit of the community. 

But I’m also a snow fanatic, or someone who is irrationally excited about frozen water falling from the sky. Hailing from Olympia, Washington, snow was a rarity, but occasionally we received a good dumping. The largest of these dumps occurred in February 2019, when I measured 22 inches of snow in my backyard!

Snowy scene, with a pond and snow-covered trees.

A pond covered in snow near my house in western Washington during the February 2019 snowstorm. Snowfall totals ranged widely across the area, but my house measured 22 inches… the most I had ever seen in the Puget Sound lowland (photo credit: Jake Lindblom).

This event completely shut down the city. Nobody moved (in fact, my family couldn’t get out of our driveway for a couple days). In a scenario like this, driving would certainly be dangerous, if not impossible. But there are undoubtedly fewer drivers on the road as well. So, should first responders, city officials, and emergency managers expect greater or fewer crashes overall?

In a place like Rapid City, which averages much more snow than Olympia (about 48 inches, actually), the question of how snowfall impacts car crashes is much more pertinent. 

Photo of cars parked with deep snow surrounding them, covering part of the hood on the nearest car.

The November 2019 snowstorm on the South Dakota Mines campus. Snowdrifts were several feet high, as seen here. The storm set a record for the snowiest November in Rapid City (photo credit: Jake Lindblom).

This question seemed like the perfect project for me. It deals with one of my favorite things about the atmosphere (snow) and applies it to a good cause: helping the community understand how snow affects car crash counts. In this capstone project, I hope to identify a causal relationship (if any) between snowfall measurements and vehicle crash counts. I hypothesize that relatively small snowfall events (less than 3 inches measured) may contribute to more crashes than major events (6 inches or more). People may have more confidence in their driving abilities when “only” a few inches of snow cover the ground and may continue on with their daily errands versus when a major snowstorm discourages them from leaving home. If I have time, I’d like to develop a car crash “forecaster” based on expected snowfall and possibly other meteorological variables (like temperature or visibility). But for now, I think I have my plate full!

Accessibility to Non-Emergency Transportation Services for Senior Citizens & Veterans with Medical Health Disparities in Rural Areas

STS Students

By Anthony Wright

Anthony is a Cincinnati-born, Los Angeles-raised STS: Policy & Law senior. Some of his hobbies include reading financial literacy and personal development books, competing in CEO business plan competitions, and leading various student organizations. 

According to the Transportation Research Board, “Nearly 4 million Americans miss or delay medical care each year due to a lack of transportation.” This issue is pertinent to the community because every family, especially senior citizens and veterans, needs transportation access to life-sustaining services such as primary healthcare providers, pharmacies, nursing homes, grocery stores, and banks in order to stay alive. There is a lack of affordable, safe, and efficient transportation in America, and rural areas are impacted the hardest. My solution is to create a non-e­­mergency transportation network connecting Rapid City public transportation services with local primary health care providers, nursing homes, pharmacies, grocery stores, and various essential service vendors to make them more accessible for seniors and veterans. 

Research has proven that consistent transportation access to healthcare vastly increases the health outcomes of members and leads to dramatic cost savings. For example, there was an “experiment of transportation brokerage service administered in Kentucky and Georgia where access to healthcare improved and resulted in hospital admissions and medical expenditures decreasing for diabetic adults.” The Centers for Disease Control estimated that “8% of the adult population ages 55 and older have at least one chronic condition, resulting in these individuals in need of non-emergency medical transportation to access life sustaining treatments and services they need. More importantly, a large percent of the 20 million adults living with chronic kidney disease undergo dialysis three times a week. Approximately 66% of dialysis patients rely on others for transportation to and from their appointments.”

How Fires Can Create Clouds

Atmospheric Science Students

By Jackson Zito

Jackson is majoring in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at South Dakota Mines. He plans on working with wildfires and the development of pyro-cumulus and pyro-cumulonimbus clouds.

When people ask me why I am going to school, I often tell them it’s to get a degree so I can hopefully get a job. After that answer we usually have a conversation like this:

Them: Cool, so what are you learning then? 
Me: Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. 
They look at me in confusion as if I just spoke a foreign language. 
Me: It’s meteorology. 
Them: Oh, so you’re going to be a weather boy like the one on TV then. 
Me: No, you know there is a lot more you can do with a meteorology degree than just be on the nightly news.
Them: Like what? 
Me: Well, right now I am researching pyro-cumulonimbus clouds. 

Assuming you have a confused look on your face as they often do, let me explain.

Searching for a Place to Live with the Most Ice and Thunderstorms

Atmospheric Science Students, STS Students

By Steven Slater

Steven is majoring in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, and his primary interest is extreme weather.

Ever since I can remember, I enjoyed watching the rare thunderstorms whenever they occurred in Western Washington. I often had to wait a year or more between seeing individual lightning bolts. I often watched The Weather Channel as my main source of weather-related content, whether it had to do with storms or snow. My mind was blown as I watched the reported snow totals rise close to 12 feet for the lake-effect vent in February 2007.

The lowlands of Western Washington don’t receive much snow, so I had to wait for that, too, though it happened more frequently than thunderstorms. I was an advocate for receiving as much snow as possible in the shortest time. The biggest event I experienced in Washington was in December 2008, where I remember playing in ~15 inches of snow at the peak of the event.

A picture containing tree, outdoor, sky, snow.
Washington in January 2012. Photo: Steven Slater.

Balancing Expectations: Preserving the Nature and History in South Dakota

STS Students

By Louise Swanson

Louise is majoring in Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Environmental Science. She plans on working with the parks system or in museum work.

When I was growing up, I spent my weekends going to ghost town sites around the Black Hills with my father. Each time we went to Spokane we made guesses as to whether or not the old community center that Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke at would have collapsed (a couple of years ago it did) or if the Two-Bit Mill would still be standing (about 10 years ago it was bulldozed into a nearby ravine to better allow for nature to return to the area). Meanwhile, I watched as the Gordon Stockade was refurbished and preserved for visitors to come and see where the Gordon Party lived while in the Black Hills.

A picture containing tree, grass, outdoor, building.
Spokane Community Center/Church, 2016. This photo and the following are taken by either me or my father, William Swanson. I asked him for his permission to use them.

In college I have taken both history and environmental science classes and worked for a year at The Journey Museum, and I have only become more curious about how the decision to preserve some things and not others is made and how agencies decide whether to prioritize the environment or the history of an area. The optimist in me also hopes that maybe sometimes we don’t have to choose. Maybe, sometimes there is a way that environmental conservation and historic preservation are linked.