Alexis Di Mercurio Models Local Weather to Prevent Potential Airport Disasters

Alexis Di Mercurio is using partial differential equations to predict the weather conditions at Atlantic City International Airport. Her calculations have the potential to prevent disasters on the runway.

Air traffic controllers caution pilots of upcoming wake turbulence—spirals of wind formed by aircrafts in flight—as they approach the runway for landing. When a plane encounters turbulence that hasn’t dissipated from the runway, its aerodynamic capabilities are disrupted.

A really precise model of weather is needed to determine just how close planes can land on the same runway, explained Joseph Trout, associate professor of Physics. Safe aircraft separation standards determine the timing of successive takeoffs and landings. “Wake turbulence can be dangerous,” said Trout.

Di Mercurio, a rising senior Mathematics major and Physics minor with a concentration in Secondary Education, is fine tuning the national Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model and comparing it to actual weather data collected at the Atlantic City International Airport.

Just the right amount of wind is needed to ensure that a runway is clear of wake turbulence. No wind allows the turbulence to linger and too much wind causes unsafe flight conditions. Precise weather data informs safe decisions.

Many of the fundamental laws of physics that get crammed onto an index card in small print during exam time are employed in weather forecasting. The model “takes into consideration the conservation of thermal energy, conservation of mass, ideal gas law and conservation of horizontal momentum” and “allows the model to measure several different weather variables,” Di Mercurio explained.

Weather begins with energy from the sun heating the atmosphere and ground and evaporating water. However, not all of the planet is heated equally. An example of differential heating is a large-scale atmospheric convection cell (known as Hadley cell) in which air rises at the equator and sinks at medium latitudes.  The air at the equator rises because it is heated by sunlight which is concentrated over a small area, where the same amount of sunlight is spread over a larger area at the middle latitudes.  Di Mercurio’s simulations localize these global weather patterns.

A graph shows wind speed over time. The two lines compare data from the Atlantic City Airport to data generated by a model.

She presented her results at the American Physical Society’s conference in Washington D.C. this year.

The native of Beesleys Point in Upper Township has always had an affinity for math and science and plans to become a high school math teacher and to pursue a graduate degree in math education. “STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) fields are growing, and it is very important to have people who are able to major in STEM related fields. As a future teacher, I want to be able to show my students how math concepts are applied in real life situations. The weather research has allowed me to realize how important math and physics are, and I have realized how much they build off each other,” explained Di Mercurio.

For the past three years, she has volunteered during summer break to work with teen girls during the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Teentech workshops at Stockton. “She came days ahead of time to prepare kits to help teach students about optics, motors and electrical circuits,” said Trout.

This year, she helped dozens of prospective future scientists build an apparatus that creates Lissajous-like figures using two motors to power the movement of two mirrors at different frequencies in front of two laser beams. A Lissajous figure is a pattern produced by the intersection of two sinusoidal curves and looks much like the curved pattern made by a children’s Spirograph toy.

Alexis Di Mercurio helps young girls build motors at Teentech.

When Di Mercurio isn’t doing math, she’s substitute teaching, tutoring, babysitting and engaged in Math Club activities.

Her next stop is Taiwan in December for a math education conference where she will present research about using cooperative learning and inquiry-based learning in math and science classrooms. “I am working with Dr. (Chia-Lin) Wu, and I have been able to see how middle school and high school students interact in these different learning environments through being in the classroom and the workshops I have done with Dr. Trout,” she explained.

Her advice to students:

  • It is important to accomplish your goals without comparing yourself to others.
  • College can feel overwhelming, but all of the work eventually pays off.
  • You have to be motivated to acquire new knowledge and learn from your mistakes to succeed in college.
  • The more challenges you face, the more experience you will have, which will help you when you continue your life journey after Stockton.

The challenges and rewards of math have inspired Di Mercurio to be an educator and to encourage the next generation to add their contributions and discoveries to the field of science.