Health and Science

Getting to know sharks one tag at a time

Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

Sharks. They’re everyone’s favorite underwater enemy. Between nerve-wracking drama’s like Jaws to stories about prehistoric mega-sharks, we have all but made the shark species a completely fictionalized being. But, scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, are changing that one tag at a time.

May 14, 2018—Our shark tagging adventure began with an eight-hour car ride from the SERC campus outside of Baltimore, down the East Coast of the United States to Morehead City, North Carolina. While others had planned on joining us, I was the only team member making the journey with Chuck Bangley, a SERC marine ecologist at SERC. So, we loaded our government issued mini-van, stopped at Dunkin Donuts and hit the road.

May 15, 2018, 7:00 am— “If you start feeling sea sick just remember, feed the fish not the birds,” instructed a crew member on the R/V Capricorn as he addressed the 10 passengers that would be heading out on today’s trip.

Chuck and I are among other researchers from the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Science. Some of them are interested in sharks, just like Chuck, while some are looking for squid or eels.

Captain Joe stops for gas, filling up the 200-gallon tank before we head out to sea. “I don’t see many white caps out there yet, but storms are in the forecast, so it might get rough,” he says, clearly excited as he steers the vessel towards the open ocean.

Fisherman on the R/V Capricorn brings in a large net of fish.Photo: Mollie McNeel

First item on today’s agenda is to “trawl” for about 15 minutes. To do this, the deckhands lower a large net with wooden and metal pallets at the ends to drag along the seafloor, collecting bait for the rest of the journey. As we float along, our net following behind, we catch the attention of a pod of dolphins that trail the net closely, making an easy meal out of the fish that narrowly avoid the net and an exciting spectacle for all on the boat.

As we reel in the net and dump its contents on deck I hear Chuck call out with excitement, “Dogfish!” That’s the shark he was searching for.

Smooth Dogfish that was tagged by SERC. Photo: Mollie McNeel
A student from UNC places the shark on its back putting it into an unconscious state. Photo: Mollie McNeel

A UNC undergrad student grabs the small shark and places it in a black plastic tank filled with seawater. “Flip it over onto its back,” instructs Chuck. Doing this helps subdue the shark by putting it into an almost unconscious state. He readies his surgical equipment, slips on blue latex gloves and grabs a scalpel to tag the shark.

In order to implant the acoustic tracker, the study procedures require Chuck to perform a small surgery on the sharks. He gives the aquatic patient a small shot of lidocaine to numb the area, makes a small incision on the shark’s underbelly, inserts the small black cylindrical instrument and stitches the wound closed—all in under five minutes. After the procedure is complete, they roll the shark back onto its stomach, making sure it is alert and moving well before it gets tossed for a dive back into the ocean.

After sorting through the rest of the net full of fish – squid, crabs and some of the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen (which the crew happily set aside for their dinners) we were ready to continue fishing for the “big dogs”— more sharks.

Our first stop was just a mile off the coast. The crew began lowering a line of buoys and metal fish hooks loaded with our bait, impaled but still flailing, into the water. One buoy, 10 hooks. That was the order we followed in a smooth and practiced routine.

Once the hooks were out there, we did what fishermen do best – we waited. An hour passed easily with talk of science, fishing stories and dreams of catching a great white. As our boat circled back around to pick of the first buoy, excitement filled the air. Members of the crew were ready pull in whatever was attached to the hooks, scientists ready to tag and measure sharks and me, ready to take photos and come face-to-face with “jaws.”

The first couple of hooks come up empty but then the frenzy starts – one, two, three sharks about 3-feet long each are pulled aboard. They are Sharpnose sharks, not a species Chuck is looking for, but ones UNC scientists are tagging in a separate study. Grab a shark – measure to the fork in its tail, to the tip of the tail – tag it – throw it back – repeat. Over and over I watched as this series was performed in a shark assembly line.

A scientists measures the length of a shark. Photo: Mollie McNeel

After about 30 hectic minutes, we had pulled in 15 sharks, none that can be used for SERC’s study but still an impressive population size that scientists rarely see on these trips. “I’m your good luck charm,” I say joking. To my surprise, the team agrees and tells me to forget the rest of graduate school and join the crew instead.

Next, we move farther off the shore to about seven miles out. We no longer can see land in any direction and the captain’s gadgets show that we are floating in water about 57 feet deep. The wind has begun to pick up causing swells about three feet tall to rock the boat side to side harshly. As I look out the window from the boats cabin one second I can see nothing but blue sky and the next the boat shifts and the window only shows dark blue water.

We repeat the buoy and hook pattern as we cast again in the deeper water. Everyone takes the opportunity to eat some lunch while we wait. “Goldfish crackers are a must while out on a boat,” says Lewis, a student from the UK who is at UNC working towards his doctorate. We take bets on how many sharks we will catch this round. The buy in is a quarter and I bet high with hopes that my luck will continue — “12,” I say.

Unfortunately, I didn’t win the bet since we only brought in two sharks. But, while the number was disappointing, the last catch was not. As we were nearing the end of the hooks, we pulled in a large Sandbar shark spanning about 5 feet long. She was not happy to be pulled up onto the deck and was flailing around violently, mouth open, teeth visible and bloodied from the hook. A deckhand jumped on top of the shark, straddling it and pressing down on its head to keep it from biting anyone on deck. The shark was quickly measured, tagged and shoved off the back of the boat into the deep waters.

Sandbar shark that was the last catch of the day. Photo: Mollie McNeel

After that excitement it was time to make the long trip back to the docks. Some people on board began conversations while others, me included, settled in for a nap in the sunshine.

As we reached the dock and gathered our belongings someone in the background asked Chuck if he thought the trip was successful. “Well, we are leaving with one more shark tagged than before, so I would say that is a success,” exclaimed Chuck with a smile as he stepped of the boat and back onto dry land.

PHOTO AT TOP: Smooth Dogfish Shark caught and tagged off the coast of North Carolina. (Mollie McNeel/Medill)

Always on alert! Two days in the national Storm Prediction Center

By Morgan Levey
Medill Reports

Medill News Service reporter and Comer Scholar Morgan Levey spent two days in the NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC) located in the National Weather Center building in Oklahoma. The SPC is responsible for monitoring severe weather — thunderstorms and tornadoes — for the entire country. Staffed around the clock by at least two people, the room contains five main desks with endless computer monitors showing weather maps of the U.S. depicting moisture, wind, radar and a host of other measurements to maximize weather forecasts.

Thursday, April 26: Norman, Oklahoma
On an average weather day, the Storm Prediction Center is quiet and dim, lit from the glow of computer monitors. I’m in the room observing forecasters work in real time. At the outlook desk, I talk with meteorologists Steve Goss, the outlook forecaster, and Bryan Smith, stationed at one of the two mesoscale desks. Mesoscale is a time scale in the order of which weather systems occur.

“That’s a unique way to chase,” says Goss when I tell him and Smith that I was on NOAA’s P-3 plane flying over the tornadoes in Louisiana the week before. The SPC had received notification that a P-3 plane had spotted a tornado from the air near Shreveport, Louisiana — the plane I was on. Smith remembers seeing the notification and says he found it odd. “That’s the first time I’ve heard of a tornado getting verified by an airplane,” Goss says.

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International Rugby Coming to Chicago

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

At a news conference inside Soldier Field it was announced The Rugby Weekend will be held in Chicago once again.
The last time Chicago hosted the event in 2016  sell-out crowds packed the Chicago Bears stadium to see their beloved country-men and women play rugby.

Team members from Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States all attended Tuesday’s announcement and answered questions on their anticipation of the event.

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The hunt for the return of the river herring

Medill News Service journalist Mollie McNeel is writing a series of stories from  embedded reporting with field researchers for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland.  

By Mollie McNeel
Medill Reports

May 9, Potapsco River, Maryland. – I am out here standing waist deep in the middle of a roaring river, straddling a net while the tail end trails behind me catching sediments that will be used to detect river herring.

Kim Richie, the SERC research technician I am assisting today, yells from the banks, “You have five minutes of standing there so get comfortable!” I don’t mention that the cold water is slowly finding its way through my full-body “waterproof” waders. Instead I just stand there waiting for the sediments to collect and my right boot to fill with river water.
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Tracking marine life on the edge of the Pacific

By Rebecca Fanning
Medill Reports

Bodega Bay, California. I’ve spent the past several weeks working with marine ecologists –holding tiny porcelain crabs, named for their propensity for losing limbs, picking seaweed out of small buckets to be dried and weighed for an animal diet experiment, peering through microscopes at fish larvae and gazing at baby oysters, their shells smaller than the head of a tack. The stakes are higher for marine life in an era of climate change, and scientists are weighing the impacts as warming oceans acidify.

The road to UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab  leads down a winding road, along a working harbor and past a series of seafood shacks, framed to the south by the calm waters of the bay. The lab itself sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and, thanks to the annual upwelling which brings rich nutrients to the water’s surface, is surrounded by one of the most productive, life-filled marine ecosystems in the world. The lab is home to a thriving community of oceanographers, marine ecologists, naturalists, professors, PhD candidates, undergraduates and boat experts.

As an embedded reporter I saw firsthand the challenges of overnight research, discussed the struggle of attracting attention (and sometimes funding) to the less “charismatic” creatures, and mourned the loss of a beloved professor and marine ecologist whose mark on this community and the world will never be forgotten.

These journal entries are impressions and experiences from my  reporting experience at the lab.  


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From finding sinkholes to slave fishing ships – Observing the Earth with satellites

DigitalGlobe maps the Earth’s surface at a high resolution, to the extent where you can take a single map and  zoom in enough to clearly see the windshield of a car, though the bobble head on your dashboard is safe from view so far.  The company works with mineral prospectors, city planners, tech companies and different branches of the federal government. It also provides  free imagery to journalists and scientists, such as helping the Associated Press locate slave fishing ships exchanging their catches with vessels that sell to major U.S. grocers. Medill News Service reporter and Comer Scholar Austin Keating is an embedded reporter with DigitalGlobe this spring, learning how to find pin-pricks of changes on the Earth, such as an elusive sinkhole in Siberia that opened up on herders who almost fell in.

By Austin Keating
Medill Reports

April 30, 2018, Westminster, Colorado. When printed on paper, an image and a map aren’t all that different. Each is as static as the other, prevented from nesting extra layers of perspective and impact that their interactive, digital counterparts can wield.

What I’ve learned over the past three weeks on a reporting embed with DigitalGlobe is that the digital realms of maps and photos are vastly different. They branch off from each other as ever-elusive “media,” and pick up specialized and unique capabilities.

So now a question: Is this a map or a photo?

Landsat 7

While you might be tempted to call this a photo, it’s really a map. It was lifted from the U.S. government’s open satellite database EarthExplorer, and almost every pixel has a set of coordinates. You can open it in the mapping software  ArcGIS and the photo-editing software Photoshop, but it gains more utility in ArcGIS because you can search any set of coordinates — to find an elusive sinkhole in Siberia or a collapsed mine in West Virginia — and find it instantly.

DigitalGlobe is a mapping company the federal government allows to map the Earth at up 30 cm resolution, and as such, provide some of the highest resolution, commercially available maps on the market.  Their constellation of five satellites of varying age and capability record reflected rays of light from the surface 24/7 for maps.

I spent the better part of a day on Monday poring over less high resolution, old government imagery, trying to tease out when a sinkhole — caused by thawing frozen soil called permafrost — first opened. Satellites brush over the planet like an army of disembodied paint brushes and rollers. But by searching for specific pin-pricks and coordinates on the Earth’s surface, I narrowed-down the hunt to a couple thousand archive maps taken over a decade of public science satellites passing overhead.

In those images, I eventually found one that wasn’t obscured by clouds and uncovered that the sinkhole first busted open in 2014, near the time scientists first observed it in a published photo. I was able to take coordinate metadata from that to start my search. But now I’m using a more specific date I gleaned through the old satellite data to gather higher resolution satellite imagery of the same spot recorded by DigitalGlobe. The end product will be a timelapse that you could call an animated photo, or gif, but since it couldn’t happen without embedded geoinformation, it will be an animated map.

I came here with experience making simple geocoded maps, ones that are no more complicated than assigning one of five colors to a hundred counties, known as a choropleth in mapping circles.

Being here has already opened my eyes to the part of mapping I always ignored: showing change you can watch happen, rather than visualizing it. With high resolution satellites, I’ve seen earthquakes in Haiti bring about erosion on land. I’ve seen corals bleach in warming waters.

It takes hours to find the change, and even more time to find the exact set of coordinates and time that shows the change, but the satellites are always watching, and they have an almost limitless archive of geocoded maps to dig into. All it takes is the motivation to keep digging.

And with so many untold stories — specifically, science stories — in the satellite space, I won’t stop digging anytime soon.

Photo at top: Southeastern Texas was inundated by Hurricane Harvey flood waters in 2017. DigitalGlobe gave high-resolution satellite imagery to scientists and relief workers. (DigitalGlobe)


Chasing tornadoes from the air

Chasing tornadoes and hurricanes with an airplane reveals an unprecedented view of their reach, threat and power. But it’s a rocky ride. Medill News Service reporter and Comer Scholar Morgan Levey hopped a front row seat in the cockpit of the P-3 “hurricane hunter” as an embedded reporter with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. She continues to explore innovations at the cutting edge of weather forecasting and delivering on crucial extra minutes of warning to communities. Follow her blog posts here.

A ride in the P-3: Chasing tornadoes from the air
By Morgan Levey

Friday, April 13, Huntsville, Alabama.
“I got the feeling…I got the feeling,” sings one of three P-3 pilots as mechanics outside our plane conduct a final check before we can take off.

I’m buckled into a makeshift seat in the cockpit of NOAA’s P-3 “hurricane hunter” behind Commander Kibbey and I can hear the preflight chat between the pilots and ground control through my headphones. Everyone’s feeling good about getting the green light for the flight.  I’m just trying to document the moment and not anticipate the nine hours of airborne surprises ahead.

They gave me a seat in the cockpit for takeoff and I watch as Commander Kibbey runs down a preflight checklist with the two pilots next to him. A small, stuffed Kermit keychain (the P-3’s namesake) hangs over the dashboard as they press buttons, flip switches and keep an eye on endless dials. My foot accidentally kicks a cord out of a jack. In my panic, I look around only to realize that a switch marked “Oxygen in cabin” is right above my head. I’m the only one who appears worried about all this though and I sit still, careful not to bump anything else.

1:48 p.m. Takeoff
Moments later — and almost without warning — we’re heading down the runway and pulling into sunny skies. The view ahead of me is beautiful and I realize I’m looking through the windshield after a lifetime of looking out the window of the backseat. The plane feels small from up here and you could easily forget about the mass of wings, propellers and engines behind us. It feels like we’re in a Smart Car when we’re really navigating a semi truck.

We reach our 2,500-foot, low-altitude elevation within minutes and I can see fields of green very clearly below. The plan for the flight is first to do a fly-over survey of a previously storm-damaged area near Decatur, Alabama, and then to head to a squall line of storms located near Shreveport, Louisiana. We were told during our preflight brief the storm is moving north-northeast at 30 knots.

The seatbelt sign is off and I move back to my seat in C3X next to Ian Sears. He’s the backup flight director for this flight, second in command to Jessica Williams, who’s sitting at a console ahead of us watching several monitors of radar readings that show exactly where the plane is in relation to the weather.

The flight director acts as the intermediary between the scientists, in this case, principal investigator and meteorologist Conrad Ziegler and radar scientist Kim Elmore, and the pilots/ flight commander. The scientists observe weather — thunderstorms and supercells — they’d like to fly near and tell the flight director. She then approves or denies the scientists’ requests, based on her knowledge of the plane’s capabilities and safety protocols.

The scientists’ goal is to fly parallel to a line of storms, getting as close as possible. The closest the plane can safely get to a storm is five miles, but isolated storms can pop up in front of the line, prohibiting the plane from getting close to a squall line. Meanwhile, the second flight director, Sears in this case, watches the greater surrounding area for other storms that may arise while the scientists and first flight director are focused on the plane’s immediate surroundings.

Data technician Mike Mascaro set up the computer at my seat so I can now toggle between a camera on the nose of the plane and a map of the flight path. Frankly, though, I feel terrible. We are nowhere near the storms and the ride is already hitting stomach-churning turbulence. At only 2,500 feet we’re in the “boundary layer,” where convection from the earth’s surface causes disturbance in the air and makes the flight bumpy. Just under 30 minutes into the flight and I get sick.

Shortly after, they take the plane up to a higher elevation. The visibility is too low to get a clear reading on the ground damage and so we get clearance to take the plane up to 10,000 feet, above clouds where the ride is smoother. We’ll also get to the storms faster.

The atmosphere in the plane is casual at this point in the ride. Crew members are napping at the back (how, I have no idea) or hanging out in the small dining area where there’s a booth-style table. People are chatting…and eating. Sears tells me that his strategy for avoiding motion sickness is just to eat throughout the entire flight. He munches on a roast beef sub as he tells me this. I  notice on Sears’ computer that he told the crew about my sickness via their internal chat and people keep coming by with helpful suggestions or just giving me the thumbs up.

3:28 p.m. Shreveport squall line
After almost two hours of flying, we arrive at our first squall line near Shreveport, Louisiana. Through my headphones, I can hear the conversation between Ziegler and Williams. After a few laps of the storm, I realize that their conversation follows a formula. As we fly along the storm line, Williams asks Ziegler to tell her when he’d like to turn — “Five miles, 10 miles?” “Let’s turn in five,” he says. A few minutes pass in silence and then Williams says, “Tell us when.” And Ziegler replies, “The tail Doppler radar (or TDR) is still painting the storm.” Or “Ok, turn now,” he says.

Williams instructs the pilot to turn 90 degrees away from the storm and then 270 degrees back towards the storm. This way the plane is able to fly the whole squall line without turning into it. And then they proceed to have the same exchange over again, repeating this whole sequence of events until the storm dies out and there’s nothing left to “paint” with the radar.

This first cell is pretty anticlimactic — not at all what I expected. I thought that once we arrived at the storms the fasten seatbelt sign would turn on, we’d all strap our seatbelts over our shoulders and the turbulence would increase. But it’s smooth sailing and the seatbelt sign isn’t On. Sears isn’t even in his seat. Outside, the sky is still pretty light and storm clouds are only noticeable when your side of the plane is passing the storm cell. The hope is that this cell could produce a mesocyclone, a tornado, but it doesn’t.

4:09 p.m. Move south to the second cell
Around 4 p.m. the scientists request a move to another squall line south of Shreveport and it appears to have pop up cells and strong updrafts — the making of a tornado. At 4:11 p.m., just after we begin lapping the second cell, the fasten seatbelt sign goes on for the first time of the flight. I prep for some heavy turbulence, but Sears tells me I only need my lap belt, the shoulder straps are overkill. Then the sign gets turned off after two minutes.

The mood on the plane is still pretty relaxed and it’s clear that the weather isn’t panning out as expected. This storm is not as severe as forecasted, but despite the mild weather we still repeat the same dance we did at the last storm line – sweeps from one end of the storm to the other and big arcing turns at the end. I understand why the scientists keep saying we’re “painting” the storm with radar, our whole movement is like one long brushstroke.

4:53 p.m. Move to third cell
“Not the storm we were expecting as of yet,” says Ziegler over the headphones. The weather that was forecasted for the Shreveport area either hasn’t arrived yet or is not coming. Williams walks back to Ziegler’s seat and they chat about where to next. They decide to move us to a cell northeast of where we currently are. On the radar map it appears that the most severe weather is northwest of us, but out of reach since it lays beyond a line of storms we can’t fly through.

Near this third cell, I start to see large cracks of lightning off my side of the plane. According to Ziegler, the tops of the updrafts are getting to 14 km, meaning conditions are right for a mesocyclone. Over the headphones, I hear Ziegler say that it looks like the storm is turning into a super cell.

Williams charges up the dance. Instead of two turns — a 90 degree turn away from the storm and a 270 degree turn back towards the storm — she decides we can do a quick 180-degree turn, which will maximize our time along the storm. This entails putting the plane’s wing down at a 30-degree angle and spinning 180 degrees. Since the plane is not pressurized this means we get thrust down into our seats and then pop back up when we’re righted. My stomach does not approve of the acrobatics and soon enough I’m sick for the second time.

Thankfully, I have multiple vomit bags with me at my seat. At the back of the plane is a dispenser of them and a couple people told me to grab at least two before we took off. These bags are different than the ones found on commercial flights, instead of a flat, wax-line paper bag, they are plastic with a hard plastic circle around the opening. No fumbling to fully open on this ride, passengers of the P-3 need quick, easy access.

5:33 p.m. The big one
By now, the third cell has petered out and the scientists and Williams decide to head toward a squall line southwest of us, on the south side of Shreveport. I work up the energy to leave my seat and go speak with Ziegler about what’s next. So far the weather has not been cooperating and I can hear the disappointment in his voice as he keeps navigating us from cell to cell.

After the flight, he tells me that it’s a hard part of the job — making the call on which cells to follow. Operating the P-3 is not cheap and a lot of people power and energy goes into the missions. No one on the flight, including the scientists, is hoping for deadly, damaging weather. But if it’s going to happen anyway, they want to be the right position, poised to map it with radar so they can get one step closer to learning why tornadoes occur and ways to increase warning times for communities on the ground.

At 6:09 p.m. we begin lapping the fourth storm cell of our ride. Despite the roughly 30-minute break between storms and the 180-degree turns, I’m still not feeling great. While the fasten seatbelt sign has been off for most of the flight, I’ve been seatbound with my forehead pressed against the window watching the horizon. Torn between wanting to document this experience and feeling like I’m going to get sick every time I move, I get up to do an interview or take a photo every once in a while and then immediately return to the comfort of my window.

But even in my nausea stupor, I can tell that the mood on the plane has changed perceptibly with this storm. “Looks like we’ve picked a winner,” says Ziegler over the headphones. “Best mesocyclone of the day reported on the ground here,” he continues. Outside the window, there’s a large dark cloud with what appears to be rain underneath.

We lap the storm six times, moving along a northeast/ southwest path, making one of those soul-crushing 180-degree turns every four minutes or so.

6:33 p.m. Tornado!
And then: tornado sighting. Williams announces that a tornado on the ground is visible out the left side of the plane. Everyone is at the window instantly, even me. It’s hard to see, but the big dark cloud with rain has a grey spot extending down. The twister.

The atmosphere on the plane is electric. Even for a crew that flies through the eye-wall of hurricanes and has done eight flights chasing mesocyclones this season, actually seeing a tornado touch ground from the air is a rare experience.

According to the flight-event notes taken by scientist Kim Elmore, the tornado could still be seen four minutes later. And at 6:44 p.m. the crew sees a flash — the tornado takes out a transformer on the ground. Meanwhile, we’re still lapping the storm, collecting data as we go.

7:06 p.m. Second tornado
And then a second tornado is spotted. And quickly this one takes out another transformer and there’s a large flash. Everyone runs to the window again, except for me. This time I’m getting sick. Motion sickness can be so debilitating — even though I have a once-in-a-lifetime view of one of the most dramatic weather events, I just don’t care. All of my energy is focused on halting the nausea and feeling better. And that means I’m not moving from my seat.

But man, the crew is excited. Especially Ziegler and Williams. But having duties that entail keeping their eyes glued to monitors means they can’t get up and rush to the window. There’s brief talk of Ziegler switching seats so he can see, but he doesn’t mind. He’s committed to collecting the data.

“Shaping up to be one of the best data sets of VORTEX-SE,” says Ziegler over the intercom. After hours of disappointing weather, the fourth cell delivered. We spend the next hour and a half lapping this storm, still turning every four minutes or so.

8:32 p.m. Heading back to Huntsville
At 8:15 p.m. the storm transforms from a supercell into a bow echo. We spend about 15 more minutes lapping the storm before it dies out and the scientists call it a day. It’s music to my ears when I hear that we’re heading home — we can increase altitude and sail back to Huntsville.

By 9:30 p.m. we’re on the ground. Never in my life have I been so happy to be grounded, but as happy as I am the flight is over, I’m still glad I did it. The crew of the P-3 hurricane hunter could not have been more welcoming or informative and I’m so lucky to have witnessed them in action, particularly navigating the weather we saw.

We have a short debrief before the door is opened. A joke is made about me joining them in Florida for hurricane season — it’s well known that I got sick several times — and Commander Kibbey congratulates everyone on a job well done. And what a way to end the season — the project ended with a bang.

Descending the stairs, fresh air hits me in the face and I immediately begin to feel better. I contemplate sitting down on the tarmac but decide not to embarrass myself further and instead walk back in the dark to the Signature Flight Support building, thanking God that I don’t have to do that again.

Meeting the P-3 Hurricane Hunter
By Morgan Levey

Thursday, April 12, Huntsville, AL.
I arrived in Huntsville, Alabama and made my way over to the Signature Flight Support building, just 100 yards from the front entrance of the airport. I was meeting Mike Holmes, a flight director with NOAA’s P-3 “hurricane hunter” flight crew and my point of contact in Huntsville. Tomorrow, Friday the 13th, I will have a seat on the Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft while it takes its final flight of the season chasing thunderstorms and tornadoes for the VORTEX-SE project.

The P-3 flies through hurricanes but not thunderstorms and supercells. Instead, it flies parallel to a squall line, getting five to 10 miles away, as close as is deemed safe by the onboard flight director. Tomorrow’s flight is planned to be 9-hours long and will likely be “very turbulent.” Jessica Williams, the flight director, tells me that she got sick on their last mission, which does not bode well for me.

VORTEX-SE is a well-named acronym for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment-Southeast, a program focused on learning more about the formation of mesocyclones in the Southeastern U.S. This area of the country is thick with forests, a vastly different terrain to the Plains region, which is better known for its monstrous summer-time tornadoes. Here, the tornado season is earlier in the year — late January to April — and it sees a disproportionately large number of deadly twisters compared to the rest of the country.

It’s believed that the reason for this is both physical and sociological. Physical in that tornadoes in the Southeast form quickly, showing signs of formation just five to 10 minutes ahead of a cyclone, giving communities little warning time. Sociological in that tornadoes come earlier than perceived “peak season” of summer and they often occur at night when people are asleep. In 2012 a major tornado hit Mobile, Alabama on Christmas day.

VORTEX-SE brings together meteorologists, researchers and social scientists to study mesocyclones and the environmental factors that influence their formation, intensity and path specifically in this part of the country. The intent is to use the research to help storm prediction, improving warning times for communities, particularly people in rural areas who may not have immediate access to adequate shelter.

After meeting Mike I join a local group from NASA on a tour of the P-3 plane. Led by Flight Commander Justin Kibbey we walk 200 yards out to the plane on the tarmac. It’s a beautiful day in Huntsville, not a cloud in the sky, and Commander Kibbey is wearing ray bans and a royal blue flight suit. Tall, with a crew cut, he looks like he’s from another era and just stepped out of a movie.

The NOAA P-3 “hurricane hunter” aircraft is beautiful. As one of only two planes in the fleet, “Kermit” just got out of the shop. With new wings, engines and paint job, Kermit’s looks brand new from the outside. (I’m told Miss Piggy, the other flight in the fleet, is now getting revamped.)

After climbing a steep set of stairs into the plane’s backdoor emergency exit, I see that Kermit’s inside looks reminiscent of the year the plane was built — 1975. Orange upholstery on the seats, tinged walls and a canvas-covered ceiling, it feels like you’re stepping into a sepia-toned photograph. But it still houses racks of high-tech equipment — radar monitoring instruments, television monitors, computers and a cockpit that seems to have infinite buttons and switches.

Standing in the plane a line from the movie Almost Famous keeps playing over and over in my head, “I’m flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi with America’s hottest band and we’re all about to die.” It’s the beginning line in a fictitious Rolling Stone article written by the movie’s main character. It references a previous scene where he, along with the band he’s profiling, flies through a storm and the turbulence is so intense they all think they’re going to die.

How bad could the turbulence be on the P-3 flight tomorrow?

While I’m contemplating how sick and scared I’ll be on the flight, the NASA visitors are taking turns getting their photo taken while sitting in the cockpit. They’re like kids in a candy store and when they hear that I have a seat onboard tomorrow, their jealousy is palpable. A good reminder of how lucky I am to be hitching a ride.

We go outside and I take a few more photos of the plane. The aircraft is a four-engine turboprop, meaning its four propellers are exposed on the wings and can withstand large amounts of precipitation, which would drown the propellers of a commercial jet. It’s a Navy-style plane built using technology from the 1950s. I’ve been assured that it’s a beast in the air, built for flying in low elevations — 5,000-12,000 feet — with very sturdy wings. “It’s built like a truck,” Commander Kibbey says.

Standing under the wing I ask him about the silver instruments attached to the underside of the wings. He tells me they’re cloud particle probes used to measure the physics of a cloud. This plane is essentially a mobile-radar lab and it’s decked out with instruments to gain readings on wind speed, air moisture, precipitation, etc.

The oddest instruments are the red and white-striped poles attached to the nose and wing-tips, which are reminiscent of lances used in horse jousting. The poles on the wings measure wind speed, while the nose instrument is a C-band radar. Underneath the plane is a lower fuselage (LF) C-band research radar, and at the back of the plane are two tail Doppler radar (TDR).

After the tour, Commander Kibbey gives me my safety briefing for tomorrow’s flight. We stand on the plane as he goes down a list of emergency scenarios and points out safety equipment and exits. It’s odd, but as he lists the numerous things that could go wrong — a water landing (we weren’t scheduled to fly over water, but you never know he tells me), a fire onboard or an emergency landing — I just get increasingly excited. I’m completely confident in Commander Kibbey and his blue flight suit and am ready for the flight tomorrow.

Photo at top: Kermit, one of two P-3 “hurricane hunter” planes used for flying through hurricanes, as well as chasing thunderstorms and tornadoes from the air. (Morgan Levey/MEDILL)

It’s not over yet: CDC expands romaine lettuce warning

By Jayda McClendon
Medill Reports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is continuing to warn consumers to avoid buying romaine lettuce distributed from Yuma, Arizona after 31 more people became ill from E.Coli. The outbreak is troublesome for lettuce sales at local grocery stores such as Village Market Place in Skokie.

Photo at top: Assortment of lettuce at Village Market Place in Skokie. (Jayda McClendon/MEDILL)

Annual blessing of the Bodega Bay fishing fleet marks a shorter and uncertain salmon season

By Rebecca Fanning
Bodega Bay, Calif.

The Karen Jeanne rocks and sways as Dick Ogg steers out of Bodega Harbor, past the rocky breakwall where surf-casting fishermen wave from their perches.

Behind him, an array of boats fall into line, each decorated with signs and flags, their decks full of fishermen, families and friends. To some this route is a familiar morning commute, the first turn on a many-miles journey in pursuit of albacore tuna, salmon, Dungeness crab or sablefish, depending on the season. To commercial fishermen the harbor marks the safe haven after a dangerous journey. For others, today offers a rare boating adventure – a chance to picnic, take photos and crack open a beer before noon.


But today is about more than just socializing. It’s day two of the 45th annual Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival and time for the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a centuries-old tradition which began in predominantly Catholic, Mediterranean fishing communities. According to tradition, a priest or pastor blesses the community’s fishing boats to ensure a bountiful harvest and safe return to the harbor.

Family and friends on board Ogg’s boat the Karen Jeanne. (Rebecca Fanning/Medill)

Dick Ogg’s slender build, kind expression and his smooth, tanned skin makes him appear younger than his 65 years. He estimates that he has attended the blessing for more than 25 years, though he’s lived in Sonoma County for much longer, moving here with his family when he was 7. The retired electrician once used fishing as a way to supplement his income, but now he’s taken to the water full-time.

“I’m always reminded of guys I’ve known who aren’t around anymore. Things happen out at sea.” – Dick Ogg

Ogg tells the story of a friend who was run over in a shipping lane, and another who passed away out at sea. But death is only one kind of tragedy that strikes the area’s fishermen.

In Bodega Bay, the blessing tradition began nearly 60 years ago and marked the start of a once-fruitful salmon season. But as regulators scramble to protect declining salmon populations, the season has become shorter and shorter. The California Fish and Wildlife announced earlier this month that commercial salmon fishing in this area would open late – not until July 26 –  and would run for barely two months. The late start cuts the commercial season in half, and with it the chance to make a living.

“The salmon fishery has been diminished to the point that there’s not enough money to make it through the season,” Ogg says, adding that Dungeness crab is the only fishery remaining that provides close to enough money to support working fishermen in the bay. And even then the owners of boats often can’t afford full-time employees when crab season slows.

“I have some bills that aren’t going away,” says one of the crew members on Ogg’s boat.  He tells me about his fear of a less-than-lucrative salmon season and his plan to seek summer work in Alaska’s more fruitful Bristol Bay or as a tuna fisherman in his native Atlantic waters off the east coast.

He says he’s not planning to wait to find out how the salmon yield. He’s already contacted several commercial fishing vessels in hopes of hopping aboard.

For now Pacific salmon join red abalone and Pacific halibut on the list of closed California fisheries. This year marks the first-ever closure for recreational red abalone, though the commercial fishery has been closed since 1996 and other abalone species placed on endangered species lists.


Right now, Ogg is fishing for black cod, a sustainable white fish often called sablefish, considered a best choice or good alternative by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch. But black cod quotas are limited, and the real money still comes from Dungeness crab, a declining industry.

As the boat turns the bend, dense waves crash against Bird Rock, a local landmark named for the persistent birds that land on its surface, their white waste leaving a kind of organic graffiti on the gray stone. The skies are a brilliant blue, but dark clouds linger at their edges, a reminder of the dangers that lurk in open oceans.

Out on the water the harbormaster radio announces the start of the ceremony. The priest leans over a woven flower wreath and the prayers begin.

On board the Karen Jeanne, the crew goes silent, necks craned as all listen to the Lord’s Prayer, reminders of fishermen past and a few references to Jesus and his admiration for fishermen.

Ogg steers the boat closer to the action. “I could use all the blessing I can get,” he says.

As storm clouds cover the sun and boats speed back to the safety of the harbor, the priest blesses each boat, scattering holy water from a gold chalice into the salty air. Before he’s fully docked, raindrops speckle Ogg’s glasses and guests duck into the cabin, reminded of the uncertainty of nature and life on the water.

Photo at top: Fisherman Dick Ogg steers his boat the Karen Jeanne to the Blessing of the Fleet ceremony on Bodega Bay. (Rebecca Fanning/Medill)

History on the wing: how evolution in birds is a window into the past

By David Thill
Medill Reports

Take a look, if you will, at the birds pictured here.

With their yellow throats and yellow breasts, their mottled feathers and the black streaks lining their wings like racing stripes – tiny cotton balls where their eyes once sat – they look like birds of a feather.

But they’re not of the same feather.

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