UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Shawn Murdzek, a graduate student studying meteorology and atmospheric science in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), received a 2019 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He is one of seven EMS students and 24 Penn State students to receive the honor.
Murdzek is investigating the relationship between environmental moisture and tornadogenesis, or the tornado formation process.
To determine if a thunderstorm will form a tornado, forecasters typically use several measurements of the ambient environment, including atmospheric moisture levels. The more moisture present in the atmosphere, the more likely it is for a tornado to form.
Murdzek runs simulations of storms inputting different atmospheric moisture levels to determine the probability of tornadogenesis. For each moisture level, Murdzek incorporates random perturbations within the simulations to represent processes important to tornadogenesis that are not completely understood, such as rain drop formation. This allows Murdzek to examine how atmospheric moisture levels impact the uncertainty of tornadogenesis related to processes that are not fully understood or resolved by simulations.
“I’m using statistical probability to convey the uncertainty of tornadogenesis in a certain environment,” Murdzek said. “For example, using statistics, we can state with confidence that there might be a 30% or 40% chance of a tornado being produced rather than just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the possibility.”
The research could benefit weather forecasting by better understanding the uncertainty associated with tornadogenesis.
“Shawn is extremely deserving of the NSF Graduate Fellowship. It’s great that the country is investing in future scientists like him,” said Paul Markowski, professor of meteorology and Murdzek’s adviser. “He is bound to make substantial contributions to our understanding of severe thunderstorms.”