ST. LOUIS — The total solar eclipse was one of the highlights of our spring. For a group of Saint Louis University students studying the eclipse, it was the highlight of their college career.

From the moment the eclipse ended back in April, grad students in the meteorology department at SLU have been pouring over the data. There were some things that surprised them. But more so, it was the experience of applying the science that has these students energized!

“The classroom is very valuable. It can give you a good base. Until you’re actually out there doing something, applied learning, like the eclipse experience,” student Ben Schaefer said. “It’s really hard to fully understand what you’re getting into as a meteorologist.”

Schaefer and his meteorology classmates planned for this year’s solar eclipse over many months. They did research, prepared experiments, and practiced those experiments, because they needed to get everything right the first time.

“So, the eclipse is a very cool event. Because a) it’s very rare; it doesn’t happen that often. And then b) you are completely losing radiation for a period of time,” Schaefer said.

The team of young meteorologists looked closely at the lowest kilometer of the atmosphere. What we call the boundary layer. It’s a layer that is very sensitive to sunlight and can be very important to our daily weather.

They probed for temperature, wind, and humidity using traditional radiosondes, better known as weather balloons, launching them before, during, and after the eclipse.

On a normal day, temperatures in the boundary layer get colder with height.

“What was really cool about the eclipse is that the temperatures were increasing with height…even in the small area of the atmosphere we were using,” student Riley Jackson said. “So, we were able to see that with the data, and it was really cool to see.”

The balloons had company, too! The students piloted specialized weather drones into the sun’s shadow.

“Nobody really has ever used weather balloons and drone launches in tandem before,” student Jimmy Bermann said. “So, that’s a really big thing that we’re trying to move forward with.”

The drones did not go as high as the balloons, but what they lacked in height, they made up for with data.

“What we found is that the drones provided a higher resolution of the temperature profile than the radiosondes did,” student Maggie Ideker said. “So, we got to see a little more detail about what the temperature profile was doing.”

The eclipse experience also proved that drones could be very useful when studying our more typical Midwest weather extremes.

“I can fly the drone multiple times within 30 minutes—within an hour—before a storm is supposed to arrive,” Ideker said. “So, I can catch the small differences in the atmosphere before maybe a tornado hits, before a severe thunderstorm hits, that a balloon launch would not be able to provide.”

Those small differences may someday allow meteorologists to better predict where and when all kinds of dangerous weather may form.

“It is the ability to explore the world around you and actually be able to say that this really happened. I watched it or I made it happen as part of an experiment,” Robert Pasken, Ph.D., associate professor of meteorology at SLU, said. “It’s a combination of all these things and different experiments that were being conducted.. That’s part of the higher purpose; greater good!”