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ESS 65N: How to make a tornado (and other flows in the atmosphere and ocean)

Drawing of a tornado tearing through a town. NOAA on Unsplash.

General Education Requirements


Course Description

Have you ever wondered how tornadoes form, or what drives the Gulf Stream and how the current may or may not be affected by climate change, or why the weather in the tropics is usually dull compared to the stormy mid-latitudes, or what sets the tracks of hurricanes? The physics behind all of these phenomena is strongly influenced by the Earth’s rotation. 

In this seminar we will explore this physics experientially using rotating tanks of water. You will get your own small turntable to perform experiments both in-class and for your assignments. We will introduce different flow phenomena, from tornado formation to hurricane propagation each week and we will design experiments to simulate them. The experiments, like the oceanic and atmospheric motions they are simulating, can be visually stunning, like pieces of fluid artwork, and we will learn various visualization techniques to draw out their beauty. You will document your experiments by recording videos and writing reports. In doing so you will practice the scientific method while gaining an understanding and appreciation for how the ocean and atmosphere work.

Meet the Instructor: Leif Thomas

Leif Thomas

"My field of study is physical oceanography, which combines my love for the ocean and fascination with fluid dynamics. I studied Physics as an undergrad at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I worked in a fluid dynamics lab and was first introduced to fluid experiments and studied pattern formation in convection. During my Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography at the University of Washington, I was introduced to experiments with rotating fluids in Peter Rhines’ lab, which I not only found inspiring and beautiful, but continue to use for teaching concepts related to the ocean and atmospheric circulation.

"Before joining the Stanford faculty, I was an Assistant Scientist in the Department of Physical Oceanography of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. My research focuses on understanding the dynamics of highly energetic currents like the Gulf Stream and the turbulence that they produce. The research involves a combination of theory, numerical modeling, and analyses of observations oftentimes collected during rough weather and high seas when these currents are most turbulent."