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!

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.
The Future if there is one is Female

Women in Science & Technology III: Now and Into the Future

Women in STEM

In this third entry in our women in science and technology series, we focus on women working right now and on the impacts women can continue to have into the future. Two of today’s entries deal with weather and climate, attesting to the importance of climate to our present and future; two emphasize the relationship between science and the arts; and one illustrates the potential our students here at South Dakota Mines have to build on the accomplishments of past women in STEM and to shape the future.

Katherine Hayhoe – selected by Frank Van Nuys

Canadian-born Katherine Hayhoe is a well-known figure in climate activism circles, in large part because of her down-to-earth and engaging skills as a science communicator. After completing a B.S. in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto, she switched to atmospheric science for her M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Champaign. She is currently a professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University, where she also co-directs that institution’s Climate Center. In addition to more than 125 peer-reviewed publications, Hayhoe has contributed to climate change studies by the National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an evangelical Christian, Dr. Hayhoe has tried to bridge the gap between science and religion, particularly on climate change. Between 2016 and 2019, she hosted and produced a PBS web series, Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion

Nathalie Miebach – selected by Matt Whitehead

Nathalie Miebach is an artist who uses weather data to create sculptures and collaborative musical scores. In her sculptures she uses basket weaving techniques, assigning different reed thickness, colors, and other objects to specific types of weather data, often focusing on extreme weather events such as hurricanes. As she says in her TED talk, “Weather is an amalgam of systems that is inherently invisible to most of us. So I use sculpture and music to make it, not just visible, but also tactile and audible.” Science is important, but if it cannot be communicated to others and understood – both intellectually and emotionally – its importance is limited. Miebach’s work helps communicate science to a broader audience and also shows that art and science can be understood together. Learn more about her work at her site, and check out her TED talk about her art using weather data below.

Laurie Spiegel – selected by Matthew Bumbach

Laurie Spiegel (b.1945) is a computer graphics specialist who has worked at Bell Laboratories since 1973. She is also a classical composer, guitarist, and lutist. Spiegel has found a way to combine her passions through the medium of electronic music both as a composer and as a programmer. Though she is a well-known composer and performer, she is most celebrated as the creator of the program Music Mouse.

Music Mouse demonstration

Music Mouse is an “intelligent” algorithmic music composition software. With a built-in knowledge of chords use, scale conventions, and stylistic practices, the software allows the user to create real-time compositions by simply moving the mouse. Spiegel has used the software for several compositions, including Cavis muris (1986) and Sound Zones (1990).

Laurie Spiegel ‎- The Expanding Universe (1980)

Laurie Spiegel’s revolutionary work in the field of technology has led to countless innovations. Her influence as a composer and performer, however, has propelled electronic music forward at warp speed. While science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) profoundly impact our world, Laurie Spiegel’s ground-breaking career illustrates the potential impact of arts integration (STEAM).  

Kiley Westergaard – selected by Karen Westergaard

Without even knowing it, we rely on scientists for information in our everyday lives. We take products, and our scientists behind the scenes, for granted. Behind the scenes, a female scientist tests and labels our products, ensures they are safe, quality products for us to use. She’s behind that nutrition label on your food products. At her lab, she tests for the protein, the fat, the fiber, all the items on your nutrition label. She then generates the product nutritional label so that you know what you are consuming. For instance, those trending seltzers right now? She’s testing each seltzer and creating the nutritional label for each. Ever wonder how long a certain food lasts before it becomes rancid? She’d know. She tests products for that too. That’s why you have the convenience of product expiration labeling. Worried about consuming products with GMOs? She’s got that too. She tests products like corn and soybeans to determine if they are genetically modified. She’s the reason you can find products labeled non-GMO. Worried about your food containing traces of chicken, beef, pork, alligator, kangaroo, goat, or rabbit? With meat speciation, she tests to ensure the product that reaches your home is safe to consume and is labeled accurately. Ever think about who’s behind the scenes? Scientists like you. Scientists like Kiley Westergaard, Chem ’19, SD Mines.

If you missed them, check out our first and second entries in this series, too!