Lake Effect Electrification project fieldwork to begin Nov. 1

The Lake Effect Electrification (LEE) project, led by SUNY Oswego meteorology professors Dr. Scott Steiger and Dr. Yonggang Wong, alongside 22 student researchers, begin their fieldwork on Nov. 1. But the project is years in the making and will continue for years to come. 

In 2013, during the Ontario Winter Lake Effect Systems (OWLeS) project on campus, researchers noticed that much of the lightning during lake effect snow storms happened inland. 

“[That] was a surprise to us because we thought most of it would’ve happened over the lake where it’s warmer and more unstable,” Steiger, the principal investigator of the project, said. Then began the process of asking why.

One former professor noted that it seemed like a lot of lightning occurred near the wind turbines on the Tug Hill, the area east of Lake Ontario, Steiger said. That led to the hypothesis that “a lot of lightning is initiated by the turbines in lake effect snow storms.” 

This hypothesis led to the formation of the LEE project, which operates with two main goals in mind.

“We wanna better understand how [lake effect] storms become electrified,” Steiger said. “We also wanna understand, do these turbines initiate lightning during these storms and under what conditions do these turbines initiate lightning, if so?”

Wind turbines can be up to 120 meters tall, and lake effect storms are relatively “shallow” or low to the ground compared to thunderstorms, Kaitlyn Jesmonth, a meteorology major and student researcher for the LEE project, said. “We have these large structures, we also have a shallower process occurring. Are these perhaps connected? That’s what we’re really looking to study.”

Finding answers to these questions could “for example, help us to work with… wind turbine companies to improve and keep them safe,” Steiger said. If certain conditions make wind turbines more susceptible to being struck by lightning, perhaps companies could do something about it. 

The LEE project is funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to the Research Foundation for The State University of New York (SUNY RF).

The fieldwork the students will participate in include driving to the Tug Hill to launch and retrieve weather balloons as well as monitor and clear off the sensors there, according to Jesmonth and Shaun Laurinaitis, a meteorology major and student researcher for the LEE project. Measuring the snowfall and working with Steiger to forecast are additional tasks within the project. There will also be a doppler-radar on wheels to help with the research.

Steiger said he would be in the field on occasion. However, much of his time will be spent in the Shineman Center on campus directing the project and acting as the “general,” sending students and scientists out to where they need to be. 

Many of the instruments the project uses are typically used in the south, where there is no snow, Laurinaitis said. The lightning array sensors are solar powered, and the solar panel is only about two inches off the ground. So, whenever it snows, the field team must clear off the sensor. 

The weather balloons the LEE project uses are equipped with more sensors than typical National Weather Service balloons, and they take up to nine people to launch, according to Steiger.

These balloons will be retrieved by student researchers, wherever they may fall, via car or snowmobile, Laurinaitis and Steiger said. However, students will not collect the instruments or clear off the sensors until it is safe to drive to their location.

Steiger stressed that safety is his number one priority and said he would likely be up late worrying about his students when they are in the field. 

Students working on the LEE project will earn minimum wage for hours logged and be compensated for gas, Laurinaitis said. 

Laurinaitis said he applied to the LEE project to earn hands-on field experience, which he had not gotten in other internships. He also wanted to be a part of a project “that could have decent research implications in the field of meteorology and even just in general.” 

Jesmonth applied to the project because she helped conduct some of the research before Steiger and other scientists submitted the proposal to the National Science Foundation.

“Being a part of that research before the proposal and then seeing that proposal come through and get accepted was just amazing to see,” Jesmonth said. “It was just really fulfilling to be a part of a project that I helped do some of the research for.” 

The NSF grant also covers “the possibility of students to do research over the next three summers,” Jesmonth said. This could include studying the results gathered during the LEE project and data analysis.

Steiger is happy he can offer these opportunities to students and said he wished he could have had the same options when he was younger.

“When I was a student… I craved field experience opportunities,” Steiger said. “A philosophy of mine has been, I want to give students the opportunities I wish I had when I was a student. It is a dream come true for me to be outside with students sampling storms.”

The main fieldwork for the LEE project is from Nov. 1, 2022, through Jan. 31, 2023. To follow along with the project this winter, follow the LEE project on Twitter, @nsf_lee.