Why Giving Matters

The Sky is Her Limit

March 3, 2015

Freezing rain is costly. Montreal’s 1998 ice storm ran up a bill of $1 billion, including $790 million in property damage. And while predicting freezing rain storms poses a major challenge to meteorologists, accurate forecasts are essential for both community safety and economic efficiency.

“If a freezing rain storm hits without being forecast, then emergency crews have to scramble to restore power and maintain order,” says Sophie Splawinski, BSc’12, MSc’14. “But if you forecast one and it doesn’t occur, a lot of emergency people will need overtime pay for doing nothing.”

Splawinski is a meteorologist with Environment Canada, responsible for predicting weather for most of Quebec. Weather has fascinated her since the age of three –“At least, that’s what my mother tells me,” she laughs. “But the first time I became captivated by severe weather was in 1994, when I witnessed a tornado from our cottage in the Laurentians. I was eight, and it had a profound impact.”

In September 2009, 15 years after this seminal tornado sighting, Splawinski enrolled in McGill’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She immediately contacted department chair John Gyakum to learn about summer research opportunities, and he responded by presenting her with a range of projects, including one researching freezing rain in the St. Lawrence River valley. The die was cast: Splawinski became a freezing rain researcher, investigating the phenomenon throughout undergraduate career and for her master’s thesis.

“We began by trying to understand how freezing rain occurs in Quebec,” she explains. “We wanted to know what sort of ingredients you need for a freezing rain storm, and why the St. Lawrence River valley so frequently forms this sort of precipitation.” Splawinski continued to build on her findings, and in her master’s studies she was able to develop a model for predicting the onset and duration of freezing rain.

Her summer undergraduate research, supported in part through the Faculty of Science Dean’s Fund (now known as the Heros of Science Fund), led to scientific papers published in the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal (MSURJ). One of these MSURJ papers, “The role of anticyclones in replenishing surface cold air and modulating freezing rain duration,” was in turn submitted to the 2012 Undergraduate Awards, an Ireland-based international competition for undergraduate research. Splawinski won the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences category and was flown to Dublin to network with other young researchers.

“I was really blown away by being able to participate in this event,” she recalls. “Winning was the result of many things lining up, but it started with the research opportunities I received at McGill, working with John Gyakum and Eyad Atallah.”

Splawinski’s goal of understanding the complexities of freezing rain offers important social and economic benefits. Her forecasting model is currently being tested by the National Weather Service in Burlington, Vermont, which collaborated in its development; Environment Canada is also intrigued by its potential.

“We are always trying to improve forecasts,” she says. “It is not an exact science, and there will always be a margin of error, but we want the best tools available.”