i m S t e e n b u r g h
I was first turned on to the science of meteorology in the tenth grade when my father and I were caught in a heavy thunderstorm while backpacking in the Adirondacks. We were forced to erect a tent for "emergency shelter" right in the middle of a marsh. After a night of restless sleep in a soaking wet sleeping bag, I decided that I wanted to avoid similar problems in the future and decided to become a meteorologist.
After graduating from high school in 1985, I attended Penn State University and received a B.S. in Meteorology in 1989. Although I received an excellent education, I found myself less and less interested in East Coast meteorology and more drawn to examining what happens over the complex terrain of western North America. In many ways, what happens to weather systems over the mountain west remains one of great questions in our field.
In 1989 I moved to Seattle to attend graduate school at the University of Washington. Seattle was a city alive with culture and outdoor experiences, and the faculty at the University of Washington challenged and stimulated me intellectually. I spent the next few years doing two things: graduate work and outdoor recreation. Being single, I could still burn the candle at both ends. I skied 50-60 days a winter and spent most of the summer hiking and backpacking in the Cascades. As an avid skier, the Cascades were a dream because they receive so much snow and you can pretty much ski all year long if you're willing to do some climbing in the summer. My experiences in the mountains only fueled my desire to better understand and predict mountain weather, so in between outdoor adventures, I'd be working on projects related to the interaction of cyclones with the complex terrain of western North America. The work I did with Cliff Mass as my advisor led to several publications and included an investigation of the infamous "Inauguration Day Storm" that produced severe winds and extensive damage over western Oregon and Washington. I was also able to study how local mountain-driven wind systems lower snow levels in Cascade Mountain passes, resulting in a unique microclimate that often results in great ski conditions but which can also cause hazardous avalanches.
In 1995 I received my Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences and took a faculty position at the University of Utah. After six years in the Pacific Northwest I thought I was an expert in mountain meteorology, but the complex terrain of the Great Basin quickly humbled me. The terrain of northern Utah is very irregular, steep, and narrow. In some locations, the Wasatch Mountains rise almost 7,000 vertical feet in 3 miles! And, there's the Great Salt Lake to complicate weather patterns. It was great to live minutes from 520 inches of quality Utah snow each year. On the other hand, predicting when and how much it snowed proved to be a major challenge, making it more difficult for me to be out there when the powder was flying.
My research over the past few years has thus focused on improving the basic understanding and prediction of weather systems in areas of complex terrain, with an emphasis on the Great Basin and northern Utah. We've done a great deal of work on lake-effect snowstorms of the Great Salt Lake and think we've made major progress in this area. In a collaborative project with the National Severe Storms Lab, Desert Research Institute, and the NOAA Air Operations Center, we recently completed a field program known as IPEX (i.e., the Intermountain Precipitation EXperiment), which examined winter storms over northern Utah. We hope to use the data collected during this event to better understand how our local topography influences snowfall both in the Wasatch Mountains and over the adjoining lowlands, including Salt Lake City.