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Meet the Big House weather forecasters

A packed Michigan Stadium circa 2009. Image credit: Flickr.com user Brian WolfeANN ARBOR—On football Saturdays at Michigan Stadium, while some 110,000 fans are watching the game, David Wright is watching the weather.

As one of two Big House weather forecasters from Michigan Engineering's Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, he sits in the press box and studies the radar data with a trained eye for approaching storms, lightning, high winds or even winter weather.

On cool, bright, autumn afternoons, there's not much to do. But when the sky opened up just after halftime in the 2011 season opener against Western Michigan, Wright and his colleague Frank Marsik's real-time analysis was crucial to authorities' historic decision to end the game early for safety reasons.

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"You can look at your smartphone and you can see that it's going to be 70 degrees today with a chance of thunderstorms," said Wright, a doctoral student who is studying how climate change could impact precipitation in the Great Lakes Region. "That doesn't really say much about when that thunderstorm's going to occur and if it's going to occur. That's where we come in. We have experience reading that data and then interpreting that data to the needs of Michigan football and the stadium crew."

Wright and Marsik, who leads the effort as an associate research scientist, have been providing the service for three seasons now. The canceled game—Brady Hoke's Wolverine coaching debut—was their first one.

"We had been watching storms develop across Southeast Michigan all game," Wright said. "These storms were creating outflow boundaries, which act like miniature fronts to initiate other storms."

He could see each lightning strike on his maps in real time. Authorities suspended play twice.

Then Wright and Marsik observed another line of thunderstorms forming near Jackson, Mich., and stretching all the way to South Bend, Ind. It was headed for the stadium.

"It would have been late in the evening before the stadium would have been clear of any threat," said Wright, who told the emergency management crew, which, with both teams' input, called the game early.

"That was a good move," Marsik said. "By the time that the fans had cleared the stadium and most were on their way home, the larger storm moved across the area, resulting in downed trees approximately five miles from the stadium."

Andy Burchfield, U-M's director of emergency management, said his office decided to bring the meteorologists on board after the tragic collapse of a concert stage at the Indiana State Fair earlier that summer. Seven people died and dozens were injured when a wind gust ahead of a storm toppled the structure before a Sugarland show.

"The National Weather Service provides information as to weather conditions, but it's not there to actively monitor the situation," Burchfield said. "So what these atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences researchers do for us here is incredibly important. It gives us an entity watching specifically for us and our needs."

The job starts the Thursday before each home game. That morning, the researchers review the latest data and prepare special Friday night and Saturday forecasts for the game day operations group. They start with Friday because that's when the fans start to arrive and camp out, Marsik said. The early forecasts help officials and vendors prepare for heat, too, and determine whether they'll need cooling stations or extra water.

Wright gets to the stadium three hours before kick-off and watches for hazardous conditions through the game. On beautiful days, he gets to see some of the action on the field.

"Being a fan does make it hard," he admitted, "because there is no cheering allowed in the press box."

 

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