I figured an assignment at Vance would mean boring weather -- I was wrong

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Peter Birkrem
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- I grew up working on a produce farm outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were always watching the weather.

We needed to know when it would rain, when it would be too uncomfortably hot to work, when to finish a harvest early to avoid severe weather damage, and when the first hard freeze would come.

I learned some less sophisticated, more artistic farmer’s tricks for short-term forecasting, like this smell and that wind shift meant that precipitation was inbound. With all the attention I had paid to the weather, it was fitting when I later got a Meteorology degree at the University of Wisconsin.

Gone were the days of gazing skyward or smelling the air. I was trained to think of the atmosphere as a fluid, with flows and eddies comparable to the ocean. I learned to use calculus and fluid dynamics and computer models to quantify the changes.

Most of my farmer’s tricks gained scientific bases.

The smell of rain was gasses forced up from the soil by already fallen rain being blown ahead of the storm.

A wind shift is caused by sharp pressure and temperature gradients, which induce convergent winds at the surface, which force air upward in the atmosphere, which can create precipitation if there is sufficient moisture.

I was assured that Wisconsin has some of “the world’s most interesting weather” by my professors. To be fair, it has a wide range of weather and is very dynamic.

January temperatures range from minus 20 to 50 degrees and snow can fall by Halloween. We get heavy rain, the occasional tornado and usually a week in the low 90s.

Wisconsin is the perfect latitude to be hit by both arctic and Gulf of Mexico-originating storm systems. It is genuinely common to wear a parka, shorts and a raincoat all in the same week.

Like any good Midwestern boy, I thought that I’d seen it all weather-wise. I figured that being stationed in Enid, America, would mean boring weather, except for the occasional tornado.

I was wrong. In my time at Vance Air Force Base, I’ve driven a moving truck through a blizzard and shivered in temperatures so sub-zero that pipes burst.

I was half-drowned in sudden torrential downpours that flooded my street.

I’ve dodged tornados, scalded myself on my steering wheel, had papers blown right out of my hand by 30 mph winds, and enjoyed about three calm, cool nights suitable for sitting on the porch with a cigar and a beverage.

While Wisconsin may be perfectly placed for dynamic weather, Oklahoma is perfectly placed for what I can only describe as violent weather.

The trailing ends of Midwest-centered cold fronts induce synoptic convection. The scorching sun and lack of tree cover make for pockets of local convection.

The humid air blowing in from the Gulf -- rising air and moisture -- are the base components for precipitation and thunderstorms.

Northcentral Oklahoma has all of these in ample supply.

The winds in Enid, which are regularly 20-30 mph and are never calm, are foreign to me. Back home, a windy day rarely has gusts above 15 mph. Here, when the temperatures hit triple digits, the stiff winds make a stroll downtown feel like you’re being followed by an industrial hair dryer.

One can think about weather like a recipe.

Different areas of the country have the ingredients in different ratios, making for weather that is similar in essence but different in character. Having grown up and lived in the same area my whole life, I never fully appreciated the nuanced differences.

The prevailing winds come from a different direction, you can see storms on the horizon for hundreds of miles, and large, violent cells pop up with great frequency. 

I’m excited to start seeing these, and many different weather characteristics from the air as a student pilot.

And I look forward to seeing weather, both from the air and the ground, across the United States and around the world.