‘Nukes can’t stop hurricanes’: Jackson State meteorology grad prepares for next chapter in research
(JACKSON, Miss.) — As hurricane season begins and commencement season ends, a JSU meteorology alum who’s preparing for graduate research is making it clear that a nuke won’t prevent the natural disaster.
Michael Jacquari Smith, 22, a native of Tuskegee, Alabama, wants to better protect the public with improved data but said past notions of a nuclear response to hurricanes is “far-fetched” and “illogical.” The recent graduate was referring to an idea bandied about by President Donald Trump last year. As deadly Hurricane Dorian barreled through the Caribbean, Trump reportedly discussed an atomic option with his top national security officials.
“Nukes can’t stop hurricanes. If anything, it could heat up the earth’s core. And you have to take into account the jet stream and atmospheric rivers. There’s so much to consider. Yes, meteorology is very advanced. So, you’d think it’s such a simple solution, but it’s not,” said Smith, who recently earned his bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Jackson State University’s Department of Chemistry, Physics and Atmospheric Sciences.
Smith has worked on several projects in JSU’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology. He will continue his atmospheric research in the fall as a graduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Weather really excites me – not just any kind of weather but severe weather. I love lightning and thunder. I want to see tornados. It gives me an adrenaline rush. I’m like, ‘Oh, snap! What’s really going on outside?’ ”
Smith said he’s big on “tornadogensis” because “there’s so much that we don’t know when it comes to predicting a tornado.” His fascination developed when he was very young.
“When I was little most kids were watching cartoons on TV, but I would be watching The Weather Channel. My people are from the country part of Tuskegee. My grandmother had a house with a tin roof. When rain would hit the tin I would go outside and sit on the lawn and watch the storms roll through. I wanted to understand what was making this happen.”
Many years ago, he recalls an even closer experience with wicked weather when the family drove 12 hours to his mother’s native Chicago from Tuskegee.
“We were driving through Tennessee and saw a lot of lightning ahead of us. We figured it would be a normal storm, so we pulled over to gas station. The people there told us it was going to be a really bad storm and that the bridge might flood. They warned us to stop driving,” he said.
“But, we decided to push through anyway. While driving, the lightning got brighter, and the clouds descended just above the hood. As soon as we went under the clouds, we were met with torrential rain, hail and a lot of thunder. It looked scary at first because I could just reach out and grab the elements.”
A little unnerved, he said he still prefers such excitement. “I don’t like days to be boring. I like surprises, and weather is just a perfect thing for that because it’s just a change in the atmosphere at a particular place and time.”
Now, he’s ready to expand his knowledge, and he still spends time watching those he admires in the industry such as Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel.
“He would be out there in front of the storm whether it was a hurricane, blizzard or hailstorm – just reporting from the field,” Smith said of Cantore. “At the most, he had only an umbrella. I knew then that I had to be like that man.”
There are other meteorologists he admires, too. However, his greatest inspiration is his mother. He described her as a then-single parent who defeated the odds. She was pregnant at age 17 and had dropped out of high school. Eventually, though, she would earn her GED, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His mother, Jeanette Moss-Smith, is the Title III director at Tuskegee University
Smith is the only biological son of his mother’s four children.
He’s taken full advantage of the academic opportunities at JSU, having earned several internships. From one, he learned about QLCS (quasi-linear convective system). It’s line of thunderstorms that happen suddenly – similar to his family’s experience while traveling to Chicago.
He also was advised by JSU alum Dr. Dereka Carroll-Smith (no relation) of UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) in Boulder, Colo. “She really pushed us when I first got to Jackson State as a freshman.”
Still, it would be during his junior year while attending a conference of the American Meteorological Society when he really ratcheted up his interest in the field. There, he was able to sharpen his skills to impress potential graduate schools and future employers.
At his internship led by Tuskegee’s engineering dean Dr. Heshmat Aglan, Smith learned to identify and analyze global weather conditions in locations with extreme temperatures by looking at daily averages, humidity, sandstorms, UV intensity and airborne salt particles. He also studied environmental factors that may impact newly manufactured aircraft by Boeing.
Eventually, Carroll-Smith recognized Smith’s growth and dedication. She helped him land an internship at the University of Oklahoma at the National Weather Center. He calls it his best internship. While there, he attended national and international weather briefings at the National Severe Storms Laboratory. He also experienced storm-chasing.
His research involved classifying rare storms and tornadic outbreaks, especially since rarity affects public preparedness. Through methods such as coding in Python and with help from the Storm Predicion Center’s (SPC) database, he successfully linked some rare instances based on intensity and area that could lead to potential measures to protect the public.
He also interned at the Storm Prediction Center. That opportunity enabled him to experience storm-chasing.
Loaded with so much acquired knowledge, Smith was able to lead a JSU organization known as I.M.A.G.E. (Increasing Minorities in Atmospheric Science through Geoscience Experiences). I.M.A.G.E. introduces students from schools all around the Jackson area and beyond to JSU’s meteorology department.
As for his future, Smith said, “Wherever there’s an opportunity I’m taking it because tomorrow is not promised to anyone. We didn’t even know we would be home today because of the coronavirus.”
While he can see himself on television forecasting weather, “right now I just want to get a better understanding of what I’m doing.
As well, he’d like to be part of research one day that could successfully generate regular readings from inside tornadoes using instrument packs. He knows that accurate predictions about tornado occurrences can protect lives.
“I want to study mesoscale meteorology, climate dynamics and tornado genesis. Mesoscale meteorology is learning the dynamics and motions and the convective side of meteorology. I call it the more exciting side. I also like to see how climate changes – from where it’s been to where it is now. As for tornado genesis, I just absolutely love tornados – not the destruction but the dynamics,” Smith said.
“In Tornado Alley, the weather is just totally different. When a storm rolls in you feel the wind; you see signs of it. It’s like you’re in a totally different altitude.” Tornado Alley is where twisters occur more frequently.
Before COVID-19 struck, Smith’s desire was to work this summer on a project called TORUS (Targeted Observation by Radars and UAS of Supercells). It’s powered by the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.
Through TORUS, researchers and students deploy a wide range of instruments to collect data on supercell thunderstorms throughout the Great Plains. They collect data on convective storms that are created by surface heating.
The goal, Smith said, is to understand the relationships between severe thunderstorms and tornado formation. Often, participants chase storms across the Great Plains and other areas in Tornado Alley, such as Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas. Several other states are included as well.
Smith credits JSU for helping him to work toward his dream of becoming a meteorologist.
“I love JSU. It has formed me. It has helped me with my networking skills. I used to be shy. But I’ve been given more exposure by being a Jackson State cheerleader/tumbler,” he said.
“Being a cheerleader, I discovered we’re not just a team. They were like my other family. We worked together and built human pyramids by standing six people on shoulders. We’d fall, pick up each other, catch one another and laugh together.”
Furthermore, he said JSU challenged him to become more outgoing.
“With me being Mister Senior that really helped me to develop as I prepare for my career. I’ve been involved with community service, fellow students, the university as a whole and have engaged with great black minds at other HBCUs.”
Despite those activities, he still considers himself a homebody and believes “people may consider me a nerd because I like to watch anime in my pastime. I do like to hang out with friends, too,” he said.
He urges others to never give up on what they believe in even when others don’t see their vision.
Smith said, “For some reason, many scientists hate imagination. But technology is in constant motion for improving everyday life. Ideas are limitless, even though some things are better left to God.”