Passion drives tornado research for eminent professor of meteorology

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Paul Markowski has dedicated his 20-year career at Penn State to understanding tornadoes, especially improving predictors of when they will occur.

But the mid-scale meteorologist admits he never saw it coming: he was recently named Distinguished Professor, one of three at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and 13 at Penn State.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Markowski. “It’s also very humbling, considering all the outstanding faculty in my department, college and Penn State. This is something I never expected in my career. It wasn’t on my radar.

Tornado forecast

Markowski said we know a lot about what causes tornadoes to develop, but we are struggling to determine when a specific tornado will form in terms of the exact location and time. This is where he aims to make an impact through his research.

For a tornado to occur, Markowski said, it first needs a rotating thunderstorm, which occurs when a warm, humid lower atmosphere sits under a cooler layer higher in the atmosphere, and the winds change considerably in speed and / or direction with altitude. An atmosphere like this allows air to flow from the ground to very high heights and spiral upwards.

In order for a rotating thunderstorm to produce a tornado, you need a downdraft so that the rotation extends to the ground (otherwise, the rotation remains aloft). Markowski’s research – which sometimes relies on instruments that are coaxed into tornado storms – has helped determine the role that downdrafts play in tornado formation.

How these concentrated forces create a powerful tornado, Markowski said, is explained using the same physics in play when a figure skater performs a spin: As the skater focuses their body weight inward, the speed increases.

Knowing how tornadoes form, Markowski said, allows us to report potentially tornado thunderstorms sometimes days in advance, but there is still work to be done to improve tornado warnings, of which 75 to 80 percent do no tornado.

Markowski compares this to knowing how a white, swollen cumulus cloud is produced. We know physics. But we can’t predict if and when it will form over your home in the next hour or so. This is the challenge facing researchers like him.

Markowski said meteorologists could reduce false tornado warning alarms simply by issuing fewer warnings, but that would lead to more missed tornadoes and potentially more loss of life. What’s more, research that incorporates social scientists shows that residents can tolerate more false alarms than meteorologists perhaps assume. This is one of the challenges meteorologists face: they have to understand the science and also how to communicate with the public.

In both science and communication, there are signs of progress: Over the past two generations, Markowski said, tornado forecasting has improved dramatically.

“When you look at the victims of tornadoes these days, the two worst recent events happened in 2011. These tornadoes were the worst in a generation. Each killed more than 100 people in one day. Today events like this are mind-boggling. It’s been in the news for weeks. These were in fact typical events in my grandparents’ time.

Attracted by the weather

Early on, Markowski was drawn to STEM fields such as astronomy and meteorology. He realized that the parts of astronomy that interested him most – looking through a telescope and tracing unexplored objects – occurred more than a century before his time. But the time was right before it, and much of what we know about it has not been discovered.

At 10, he studied the weather and the lessons were quickly followed by an outbreak of tornadoes that hit Pennsylvania, where he grew up. This interest took him to Penn State as an undergraduate student, then to Oklahoma for his graduate studies before returning to Penn State in 2001 as a faculty member.

He said Plan A was to be a professional baseball player. But Plan B, he said, where he’s surrounded by “brilliant colleagues and students” who are passionate about investigating unknowns and paid to improve our understanding of tornadoes, isn’t so bad.

As an educator, he is drawn to more general aspects of meteorology. Her lectures are not tornado research and her textbook Mesoscale Meteorology in Midlatitudes, co-authored with colleague Yvette Richardson, professor of meteorology and associate dean for undergraduate education, only slightly overlaps with areas of her research. main.

But tornado research is where it aims to have the most impact.

“Tornadoes are definitely what excites me the most, and to study something at the highest level you have to be passionate,” said Markowski. “There is simply no other alternative because scientific research is detective work. And detective work means flipping every stone tirelessly, painstakingly, tenaciously pursuing leads. You can’t pretend. You have to be passionate about what you are doing.


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