Passion drives tornado research for distinguished professor of meteorology

David Kubarek
June 02, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Paul Markowski has dedicated his 20-year career at Penn State to understanding tornadoes, particularly bettering predictors for when they’ll occur.

But the mesoscale meteorologist admits he never saw this coming: He was recently named distinguished professor, one of three within the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and 13 at Penn State.

“This is a tremendous honor,” Markowski said. “It’s very humbling, as well, given all of the outstanding faculty in my department, in the college and at Penn State. This is something I never expected in my career. It wasn’t on my radar.”

Forecasting tornadoes

Markowski said we know a lot about what causes tornadoes to develop but we struggle with the ability to pinpoint when a specific tornado will form in terms of exact location and time. That’s where he aims to make an impact through his research.

For a tornado to occur, Markowski said, first you need a rotating thunderstorm, which happens when a warm and humid lower atmosphere lies below a cooler layer higher up in the atmosphere, and winds change speed and/or direction considerably with height. An atmosphere such as this allows air to flow from the ground to very high heights, and spiral upward as it does so.

For a rotating thunderstorm to spawn a tornado, you need a downdraft in order for rotation to extend to the ground (otherwise, the rotation remains aloft). Markowski’s research — which sometimes relies on instruments that are coaxed into tornadic thunderstorms — helped determine the role downdrafts play in tornado formation.

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

Knowing how tornadoes form, Markowski said, allows us to flag potentially tornadic thunderstorms sometimes days in advance, but there’s still work to be done to improve tornado warnings, 75-80% of which don’t result in a tornado.

Markowski likens it to knowing how a white, puffy cumulus cloud occurs. We know the physics. But we can’t predict if and when one will form above your house within the next hour. That’s the challenge researchers like him face.

Markowski said meteorologists could reduce tornado-warning false alarms simply by issuing fewer warnings, but that would result in more missed tornadoes, and potentially more losses of life. Also, research that incorporates social scientists shows residents can tolerate more false alarms than meteorologists perhaps assume. That’s one of the challenges meteorologists face: They need to understand the science and also how to communicate to the public.

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

“When you look at tornado casualties these days, the two worst recent events occurred in 2011. Those tornadoes were the worst in a generation. Each had more than 100 fatalities in one day. Today, events like that are stunning. It’s in the news for weeks. Those were actually typical events in my grandparents’ era.”

Drawn to weather

Early on, Markowski was drawn to STEM fields such as astronomy and meteorology. He realized that the parts of astronomy that most interested him — peering through a telescope and plotting uncharted objects — happened more than a century before his time. But the weather was right there in front of him and much of what we know about it remained undiscovered.

At age 10, he studied weather and the lessons were quickly followed by an outbreak of tornadoes that struck Pennsylvania, where he grew up. That interest brought him to Penn State as an undergraduate student and then to Oklahoma for graduate school 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” with a passion for investigating the unknowns and is paid to improve our understanding of tornadoes, isn’t so bad.

As an educator, he’s drawn to more broad aspects of meteorology. His courses branch outside of tornado research and his Mesoscale Meteorology in Midlatitudes textbook, co-authored with colleague Yvette Richardson, professor of meteorology and associate dean for undergraduate education, only slightly intersects areas of his core research.

But tornado research is where he aims to make the most impact.

“Tornadoes are certainly what I’m most passionate about, and to study something at the highest levels, you have to be passionate about it,” Markowski said. “There’s just no other alternative because scientific research is detective work. And detective work means turning over every stone tirelessly, thoroughly, tenaciously pursuing leads. You can’t fake that. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 02, 2021