Students of weather win forecasting trophies

When it comes to weather forecasting, York atmospheric science students have proved they are better than most of their prognosticating peers at schools across the continent.

In April, York’s 12-member team came eighth overall out of 63 schools in the United States and Canada competing in the second annual WxChallenge, an eight-month collegiate weather forecasting competition. That’s mighty close to the perennial winners from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and best of three in Canada.

Though they didn’t place first, “this is still a great achievement and leagues ahead of our inaugural performance last year,” wrote David Flagg, a York doctoral student, in an e-mail to the team.

York students also won three individual trophies. Undergraduate Brian Owsiak, who is president of the Atmospheric Science Club @ York, brought home two – one in the 10-city challenge and the other as a finalist in the end-of-year invitational tournament. Flagg brought home one trophy, also as a finalist in the end-of-year tourney.

Undergraduate Jordan Nicholls also distinguished himself as having the best cumulative score of all participants from York and ranking 60th of 1,511 individuals who competed in the challenge.

Right: Students of weather study the changing sky. From left, high scorer Jordan Nicholls with trophy winners Brian Owsiak and David Flagg .

“It is quite significant that York students from a relatively small meteorology program (by US standards) can compete effectively in this US competition,” said atmospheric science Prof. Peter Taylor. The York team consisted of 11 undergraduates and one graduate student.

Launched by the University of Oklahoma, the WxChallenge runs from September to April and is open to any university students, faculty and researchers with an interest in meteorology. Using Web-based data, participants forecast daily high and low temperatures, precipitation and maximum one-minute sustained wind speed over specified two-week periods for each of 10 selected cities.

Scores are tallied individually for each city competition. Participants can win in one of four categories (freshman/sophomore, junior/senior, graduate student, faculty/post-doc) and overall. The school team score is based on the total of the individual scores for all 10 cities.

Owsiak was top overall forecaster in the New Orleans challenge, besting 1,510 other individual forecasters in every skill range, from first-year undergraduate to faculty level. He, Flagg and Nicholls were among the top 64 individual forecasters – out of 1,511 – invited to compete in the end-of-year tournament forecasting the weather for Dodge City, Kansas. Participants were seeded and took part in a series of elimination rounds. All three from York made it to the last round of 16. Flagg and Owsiak made it to the final round of eight and finished in the top four.

“What a way to cap off a stellar year,” wrote Flagg in his e-mail. “Although the team didn’t win the top prize, collectively we’ve done a service for York and its reputation in the international forecasting community. It’s a small victory for now, but, sustained over coming years, will likely pay dividends down the road as the rest of the community takes notice of the consistent strength of forecasting skill coming from York.”

This was the first time Nicholls took up the WxChallenge and though the exercise ate up 30-45 minutes of his precious time daily, he plans to do it again next year. The third-year atmospheric student “learned a ton” during the challenge. “It’s hard to get any type of experience in our field without having a job,” says the future forecaster. “So this is the best thing you can do to get some type of experience without getting a job first.”