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The Science of Extreme Weather

The Science of Extreme Weather

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The Science of Extreme Weather

Course No. 1771
Professor Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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4.5 out of 5
39 Reviews
84% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1771
Video Streaming Included Free

What Will You Learn?

  • Look at the extremes of weather including the highest and lowest temperatures on the planet and the deadliest weather on Earth.
  • Venture into space to see how different types of weather satellites chart large-scale extreme weather systems.
  • Examine the supercell, which produces the strongest straight-line winds, the most violent tornadoes, and the largest hail.
  • Explore what's going on in the atmosphere to create extreme drought, which is associated with heat waves and dust storms.
  • Chart the role of the Coriolis force, water temperature, and other factors that must coincide for hurricanes to form.

Course Overview

Extreme weather captures our attention, perhaps now more than ever. Great writers and artists have depicted it in powerful works such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Winslow Homer’s The Gale. Movies such as The Perfect Storm, Twister, and The Day After Tomorrow entertain—and terrify—us. Weather apps, websites, and TV channels alert us to our local weather around the clock and also warn us about severe weather.

And yet, we can’t control the weather. Indeed, its most extreme forms plunge us into a struggle for survival, in catastrophic events such as these:

  • In January 1888, a thaw on the Great Plains was followed by a sudden temperature drop and a blinding blizzard, trapping many children in one-room schoolhouses, miles from home, without adequate clothing. The “Children’s Blizzard” claimed 235 lives.
  • In July 1976, a typical afternoon thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains lacked the usual wind shear to keep it moving. The result was a stationary deluge that initiated a flash flood in the Big Thompson River, killing 144 who could not outrun the rapidly rising water.
  • During just a few days in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina evolved from a cluster of ordinary storms into a monstrous hurricane that left more than 1,200 dead and ranks as America’s costliest natural disaster to date.

We may be helpless to prevent such weather, but thanks to an ongoing revolution in the science of meteorology, we can now understand how extreme weather conditions arise, extract far more useful information from forecasts, and know how to protect ourselves when dangerous conditions develop.

The Science of Extreme Weather is your field guide to the worst that Earth’s atmosphere can inflict. In 24 exciting, informative, and potentially life-saving half-hour lectures aimed at weather novices and amateur forecasters alike, you gain a surprisingly powerful tool in the face of such overwhelming forces: knowledge.

Guided by meteorologist, storm chaser, and award-winning teacher Eric R. Snodgrass of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you learn the fundamental science that underlies blizzards, flash floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and more. Never again will you under- or overreact in the face of an emergency weather “watch” or “warning,” because you’ll understand the difference between the two, the nature of the impending threat, the reasoning behind the prediction, and the measures you need to take for protection.

Think Like a Meteorologist

Illustrated with beautifully rendered graphics, stunning storm images, and entertaining demonstrations of meteorological principles, The Science of Extreme Weather teaches you to think like a meteorologist. In search of potentially life-threatening conditions, you learn to interpret clues in the sky and the significance of temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind direction and speed. Simple and practical forecasting rules, such as that falling air pressure signals stormy weather and rising air pressure heralds clear skies, will suddenly make perfect sense. You’ll also learn to decipher technical data, such as Doppler radar images, which provide velocity information on the motion of precipitation inside storms—like an X-ray into the shrouded birthplace of tornadoes.

In addition, you will be enlightened about widespread extreme weather myths, such as that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, or that a ditch or an underpass are safe refuges if you are caught in the open near a tornado (instead, stay in the car, where the seat belt and airbags will help protect you). And you will be alerted to some truly ominous warning signs, including these:

  • Lightning: If you are ever outdoors in stormy weather and your skin starts to tingle and your hair stands on end, you are about to be struck by lightning. If you can’t take shelter immediately, then crouch down on the balls of your feet. Don’t run and don’t lie down.
  • Flooding: Climb to higher ground instead of trying to outrun a flash flood—and never enter a flooded roadway. Six inches of swiftly moving water can sweep you off your feet. Two feet of floodwater can carry away a car. Even if the water doesn’t look too deep, the road could be eroding from beneath, making it prone to collapse under the weight of a vehicle.
  • Heat and humidity: Heat-related fatalities may well be the deadliest form of weather on Earth. And when combined with high humidity, even seemingly bearable temperatures can kill, due to the body’s inability to cool off. Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Explore the World’s Wildest Weather

Raised in the heart of Tornado Alley, the region of the U.S. with by far the most tornadoes of anyplace on the planet, Professor Snodgrass has long been fascinated with the supercell thunderstorms that sweep across the plains, spawning tornadoes when a precise combination of meteorological factors coincides. This interest led him to become a scientist and storm chaser—a cautious stalker of extreme weather, using the tools of his discipline to decipher what makes dangerous storms form. Each year he leads more than 1,500 University of Illinois students through a course focused on severe and hazardous weather.

In The Science of Extreme Weather, this exuberant meteorologist and gifted educator takes you on a virtual expedition into the heart of the world’s wildest weather, investigating the mechanisms behind storms such as these:

  • Tornadoes, class EF5: Tornado wind speeds can range from 65 mph to more than 200 mph. The Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale classifies the most destructive as EF5. Professor Snodgrass explains how tornadoes achieve such strength, highlighting the history of several of the deadliest.
  • Tropical cyclones: A typical tornado is 100 feet wide, while a tropical cyclone (called a hurricane in the Atlantic and a typhoon in Japan) is hundreds of miles wide. Major Atlantic hurricanes are those in category 3, 4, or 5, with sustained winds of 111 to 157 mph or higher.
  • Lake-effect snowfalls: The region downwind of the Great Lakes routinely experiences epic snowfalls, with a 2014 storm burying parts of Buffalo, N.Y., in 5 to 7 feet of snow over the course of several hours. Professor Snodgrass describes how cold air flowing over a relatively warm lake incited this paralyzing event.

All of these extremes, and many more that you learn about in this course, may make it seem that our planet is barely survivable. But as Professor Snodgrass points out, we thrive on Earth. Even as the population of the globe continues to increase, fewer and fewer people are dying from extreme weather. The credit goes to improved forecasting tools along with more accurate computer models that weigh the countless data points that represent the ever-changing atmosphere. As a result, it is rare for a severe weather event to catch meteorologists by surprise.

Extreme weather has another side: it is nature’s way of restoring balance. For example, tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Pacific are fundamental to Earth’s energy and water budget. They act as a safety valve for high levels of temperature, moisture, and pressure that would become much worse without such storms. After watching The Science of Extreme Weather, you’ll come away with newfound appreciation and respect for the atmosphere’s most awe-inspiring phenomena.

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24 lectures
 |  32 minutes each
  • 1
    Extreme Weather Is Everywhere
    Survey the remarkable range of extreme weather around the planet. Then consider: Why does Earth have weather at all? Professor Snodgrass introduces basic features of the atmosphere that naturally lead to severe weather. He concludes by outlining the goals of the course-among them, preparedness. x
  • 2
    Temperature Extremes and Cold-Air Outbreaks
    Discover the origin of Earth's great variability in air temperature, and learn how it also explains the seasons. Search for the highest and lowest temperatures on the planet, and the locations with the greatest difference between highs and lows. Along the way, encounter the deadliest weather on Earth. x
  • 3
    Low Pressure and Earth's High Winds
    Witness a demonstration of the power of air pressure and the ability of changing pressure to produce clouds. Learn how fluctuations in air pressure play a role in all weather, propelling everything from the ferocious winds of a tornado to the incredible speeds of the jet stream. x
  • 4
    Extreme Humidity, Rain, and Fog
    Severe weather is driven by water's ability to change phase-with energy being released during the transition from vapor to liquid, and from liquid to ice. Calculate the stupendous amount of energy brewing in a typical thunderstorm, and study cases of extreme humidity, rain, and fog. x
  • 5
    How Radar Reveals Storms
    In this and the next lecture, study the advanced technology that has revolutionized extreme weather forecasting. Here, look at how radar has vastly improved the prediction of tornadic thunderstorms. You've seen Doppler radar images in forecasts. Now learn how this all-important tracking tool works. x
  • 6
    How Satellites Track Severe Weather
    Venture into space to see how different types of weather satellites chart large-scale extreme weather systems in both daylight and darkness. Compare two nearly identical hurricanes—one in 1900, the other in 2008—to highlight the life-saving capability of orbiting weather stations. x
  • 7
    Anatomy of a Lightning Strike
    Moment for moment, the one billion volts discharged in a typical lightning strike may be the most extreme of all weather phenomena. Watch lightning unfold in super-slow motion, and gain an appreciation for the exquisite complexity of this electrifying event. x
  • 8
    Lightning Extremes and Survival
    Investigate positive polarity lighting—a bolt up to ten times more powerful than normal lightning—which accounts for five percent of cloud-to-ground strikes. Then hear life-saving tips on how to recognize when you are about to be hit by lightning and what you should instantly do. x
  • 9
    Thunderstorm Formation and Weather Balloons
    Begin a series of lectures on thunderstorms, which are the key to understanding many types of extreme weather. Learn how thunderstorms are forecast, and explore their formation by following a weather balloon on its data-gathering mission through the atmosphere. x
  • 10
    Wind Shear and Severe Thunderstorms
    Wind shear is the ingredient that turns an ordinary thunderstorm into a monster. Study the mechanisms that underlie this transformation. Then evaluate the crucial difference between a severe weather watch versus a warning, and put yourself in the shoes of a forecaster calling the shots. x
  • 11
    Squall Line Thunderstorms and Microbursts
    Heralded by an ominous-looking formation called a shelf cloud, a squall line is a group of thunderstorms that produces intense, destructive winds. Analyze the anatomy of a squall line, so that you know what to expect next time a shelf cloud approaches. Also investigate microbursts, another dangerous product of thunderstorms. x
  • 12
    Supercell Thunderstorms and Hail
    Pound for pound, the supercell is the most powerful thunderstorm on Earth. Explore the mechanics of this system, which produces the strongest straight-line winds, the most violent tornadoes, and the largest hail. Close by looking at the formation of a record-breaking hailstone weighing almost two pounds! x
  • 13
    Tornadoes and Their Amazing Winds
    Tornadoes hit all 50 states of the U.S. and most inhabited regions of the world. Blowing as fast as 200 to 300 mph, they are the most awe-inspiring of extreme weather. But what exactly are they? And why are they more prevalent in some areas than others? Probe tornado facts and myths, and survey some of the deadliest tornadoes of our times. x
  • 14
    Tornadogenesis and Storm Chasing
    The genesis of tornadoes takes place under complex conditions that are still being deciphered by meteorologists who make detailed measurements from up close. Go inside a supercell thunderstorm to see a tornado being spawned. Then learn tornado safety tips and the precautions that professional storm chasers take. x
  • 15
    Mountain Windstorms and Avalanches
    Study the impact of mountains on weather by investigating the Chinook winds, which can race down the east face of the Rocky Mountains with tornadic force. Also look at the Santa Ana winds of southern California, notorious for fanning the region's wildfires. Then explore another aspect of extreme mountain weather: avalanches. x
  • 16
    Ice Storms: Freezing Rain Takes Over
    Begin the first of three lectures on winter weather by pinning down the cause of ice storms, which are beautiful but also dangerous and destructive. Professor Snodgrass demonstrates how supercooled water is the source of the freezing rain behind these perilous storms. x
  • 17
    Epic Snowfall and the Lake Effect
    The region downwind from the Great Lakes is famous for its lake effect snowstorms, which can total more than 200 inches of snow per year for some locations. Examine the factors behind this phenomenon as well as the mortal danger posed by blizzards, as shown by the tragic Children's Blizzard of 1888. x
  • 18
    Blizzards and Winter Cyclones
    Look back at historical blizzards that paralyzed major U.S. cities. Then probe the official definition of a blizzard, the cold-weather cyclone systems that create them, and the revolution in forecasting blizzards since 1993. Focus on the role of the jet stream, and dispel a common misunderstanding of the polar vortex. x
  • 19
    Flash Floods and Deadly Moving Water
    Consider the deadly power of moving water. Explore scenarios for extreme flooding in flood-prone regions of the U.S. and consider past cases of extreme coastal floods, river floods, and flash floods. Study the meteorology behind these events, and hear flood safety tips. x
  • 20
    Drought, Heat Waves, and Dust Storms
    From the American dust bowl of the 1930s to the relentless expansion of the Sahara in Africa, drought represents severe weather that can stretch out for years. Explore what's going on in the atmosphere to create extreme drought, which is associated with heat waves and dust storms. x
  • 21
    Where Hurricanes Hit
    Begin the first of three lectures on tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes, typhoons, or cyclones depending on where they occur. Plot the historical tracks of these gigantic storms, sharpen your understanding of how they are named, and focus on tropical cyclones that were so notorious that their names have been retired. x
  • 22
    The Enormous Structure of a Hurricane
    How do hurricanes get so big? Start off the coast of West Africa to see how this region is the perfect breeding ground for low-pressure disturbances. Chart the role of the Coriolis force, water temperature, and other factors that must coincide for these systems to grow into hurricanes threatening the U.S. x
  • 23
    Storm Surge and Hurricane Intensification
    Hurricanes destroy life and property in four ways: through storm surge, inland flooding, high winds, and embedded tornadoes. Consider examples of each. Then focus on high water as the deadliest factor, responsible for 80% of all hurricane fatalities. x
  • 24
    El Niño and Cycles of Extreme Weather
    Close by investigating one of the most eventful weather triggers of all: the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, which starts as a warming trend in the eastern Pacific and can lead to extreme weather throughout the world. Our detailed understanding of this once-mysterious phenomenon, as well as other extreme weather cycles, shows how far the science of meteorology has come. x

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  • 232-page printed course guidebook
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  • Closed captioning available

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 232-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos, charts, and illustrations
  • Suggested Readings
  • Questions to Consider

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Your professor

Eric R. Snodgrass

About Your Professor

Eric R. Snodgrass, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Eric R. Snodgrass is the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also received his master’s degree. Previously, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Geography from Western Illinois University. Each year, Professor Snodgrass guides more than 1,500 University of Illinois students through the wild side of weather in his popular...
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The Science of Extreme Weather is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 39.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Know it will be great! We purchased this recently but have yet to view it. But all the courses we have purchased have been great.
Date published: 2017-09-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Recommended as a Second Course on the Weather For anyone interested in the weather, this would be a good follow-up to Robert Fovell's "Meteorology: An Introduction to the Wonders of the Weather" (Great Course 1796), which I would recommend taking first. I have viewed numerous Great Courses on various subjects, and none of them have been "perfect" in any subjective sense, but this one is good within its subject field. There could be only minor quibbles which do not detract from the overall quality.
Date published: 2017-07-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good content, but not ready for prime time Good selection of material, enthusiastically presented. Copious graphics considerably strengthened the clarity of the presentation. However, many minor flaws, apparently due to insufficient preparation and editing, add distractions that show the class is not quite ready for prime time. With a little more work put into a second edition, this class could be terrific. As presented now, though, spoken emphasis often seems forced, many overlays and graphics labels are misspelled, word choices are weak for a scientific presentation (e.g. storms “tried to” approach the U.S., “exponential” temperature increase, “best” lake effect snows). Repeated references to greater damage potentials in a hurricane's “right hand side,” given without supplying the perspective needed to understand that contextual terminology, were particularly vexing, especially since from the perspective of people being warned of the dangers, the larger storm surge and higher winds would appear to the left of the oncoming storm. Graphics help clarify that situation, but should serve to enhance the spoken descriptions instead of being necessary to explain those words. Some statements are just wrong, like saying that U.S. military camouflage is designed to prevent soldiers from being seen by satellites, and that University of North Dakota students often fill sand bags at the FargoDome during their spring break (in fact UND is located 80 miles north of Fargo, while North Dakota State University is located in Fargo). After repeated well-purposed warnings about safety within the course, the end of the course was counterproductive, with its depiction of Professor Snodgrass ascending a staircase while a tornado supposedly bears down on the virtual studio. This course provides much information about severe weather of all types, so it is still useful if the many minor glitches are ignored. I can't recommend it despite my keen interest in the topic, because too often I had to mentally overcome course deficiencies to return focus to the points being made.
Date published: 2017-07-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lots of fun, if sometimes superficial I enjoyed this course a great deal, even though the speaker does seem to have a speech impediment that sometimes blurred what he was saying (notably the words "satellite" and "tornado"). I watched it with the closed-captioning on. His enthusiasm and personal knowledge of extreme weather more than made up for those slight difficulties. Having him perched in a pretend weather-watching tower was silly, but amusing in the spirit of the course, which is definitely more light-weight than the other meterology course offered by The Great Courses. There was a little too much anecdotal material, especially a long story about a child lost in a blizzard and a prolonged description of teaching a four-year old to estimate how far away a storm is. I got confused from time to time by the speaker's switching from standard to metric measures, and I would have liked some variation in the repeated slides of how a thunderstorm works to show the progression of the storm from minor to serious. More about weather maps would have been nice, too, and the effects of extreme weather elsewhere than in the American Midwest. For an interested amateur, this is a good course on the subject - especially with the advice on preparing for extreme weather and the repeated caveat of "don't try this at home"!
Date published: 2017-06-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of great information, explained well. Not boring, very informative. I've taken Skywarn weather classes over the years but this really fills all the gaps and adds to whatever I've learned in the past.
Date published: 2017-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worthwhile Professor Snodgrass is an engaging lecturer. He held our attention so that each half hour seemed to be over much too quickly. There are many photos and videos as well as graphs (some produced by himself). Some reviewers wanted more detailed explanations as to why extremes occur. In fact, there is no dearth of such explanations. There is no more time in this course for further detail, but there is plenty of detail to know what are the causes and effects of extreme weather events. One minor comment on practically all Great Courses: The lecturers should stay with Metric or Standard. This is especially so with the science courses. This professor and many others haphazardly mix the two systems. Your customers are generally intelligent people who either know, or can learn, metric. Professor Snodgrass provides highly interesting and fast moving lectures. Be sure to watch all the credits at the end of the DVDs to the very end!
Date published: 2017-06-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Impressive Science; Excess Description and History The science of weather explained in this course is remarkable and impressive. It is wonderful that meteorologists have reached the level of understanding of our planet explained here, and I am left with a far deeper appreciation of every weather forecast I hear. For this reason alone I recommend the course, regardless of how fascinating you find the topic in itself. However - I agree with Pediatrician's review: Far too much of the course is taken up by many, many descriptions of specific weather events. The science is given short shrift. What is presented is engrossing, but is relatively superficial. I would have appreciated a much deeper discussion of the physics. There are also a few, albeit minor, misleading scientific statements. For example, in Lecture 1 we learn "...molecular vibration, including the kinetic energy of molecules in a substance and the vibrational movement of the molecules, is what we call temperature." [Quote from Course Guidebook.] Well, not exactly. Temperature is properly defined as the average kinetic energy of the molecules in a given mass. We are also told flatly that the equinoxes and solstices all occur on the 21st of their respective months. Again, not quite. In fact, the vernal equinox now occurs on the 20th of March, and will not move back to the 21st until 2101. Professor Snodgrass is highly knowledgeable and conveys his love of his subject. (In fact, his almost breathless enthusiasm is sometimes a bit much.) He speaks clearly and with good modulation, but is often disorganized, jumping from item to item without an apparent overarching plan. I do very much appreciate his stress on how to stay safe in the various forms of extreme weather. This would be a good review for everyone. The visuals of the science are quite good, when they are presented. Again, I wish there were more of these, and fewer shots of actual tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. The Course Guidebook is quite complete and well-written, with a brief bibliography but no index or glossary. So - I do recommend this course, despite its drawbacks, for the insight it provides into the complexity of the earth's weather and the accomplishments of the scientists who have devoted themselves to its study.
Date published: 2017-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Course! This course is both extremely interesting and great fun. Prof. Snodgrass can be a bit breathy and overly dramatic in his presentations, but he conveys an impressive amount of fascinating information in an easily understandable way. The course focuses on the information that I have always wanted to know to make sense of weather forecasts, radar and satellite images, and the other "weather app" data that we all have access to and I now realize I did not fully understand. He also explains and makes understandable the hows and whys of the dramatic weather events that often have me glued to the Weather Channel -- but, until now, without the sort of foundational knowledge that provides context and real understanding. I think anyone interested in the weather that makes us step up and pay attention would really enjoy this course. Five stars! As a further note, I found this course much more comprehensible and entertaining than Prof. Fovell's meteorology course, which, at least to me, was very dry, dense, and, frankly, dull. If you are inclined to purchase just one, I give the nod to The Science of Extreme Weather, hands down.
Date published: 2017-03-24
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