Assistant Professor, Geography
College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Jana Houser, an assistant professor of geography, specializes in the structure and evolution of supercell thunderstorm and tornado processes. Houser has been captivated by tornadoes from the time she was in elementary school, and a lifelong passion to learn how they function began.
Although scientists have been studying tornadoes for decades, the mystery as to how tornadoes form remains a mystery. It is extremely difficult to collect sufficient data that can accurately sample a tornado. Enter Houser and the Rapid X-band Polarimetric Radar - or RaXPol - a critical data-collecting instrument she uses to study tornadoes.
Using the RaXPol, a rapid-scanning mobile radar, Houser researches the sequence of events occurring while tornadoes form, intensify and decay. Unlike the instruments commonly referenced on the news, the RaXPol collects data 15 times faster than the conventional scanner, and can scan a 360-degree swath of the atmosphere at 10 different elevations in a matter of 16 seconds, she says.
"The RaXPol is a unique instrument; it is the only one in the country,” says Houser. This multi-million dollar instrument is used specifically for research purposes only. After using this instrument, the data are stored on a hard drive, then processed and analyzed at a later point in time, which, according to Houser, can take years to analyze.
Through her research, Houser made a surprising discovery that challenges the traditional theory commonly attributed to describe tornado formation - the Dynamic Pipe Effect. According to Houser, the Dynamic Pipe Effect claims that tornado formation begins at the middle levels of a storm with an area of strong rotation, which builds toward the ground relatively slowly (about 5-10 minutes), eventually culminating in the formation of a tornado.
In the case-study that she analyzed, Houser found that there is strong rotation that forms near the ground first. The tornado winds rapidly developed nearly simultaneously throughout a deep vertical column (at least 2-3 km high). From beginning to end, the tornado formation process occurred in less than 30 seconds and there was no evidence of it beginning aloft and descending to the surface.
While learning about the formation of tornadoes is a critical aspect of her work, Houser also focuses on the storm-scale features associated with tornadoes and the rapid changes that occur within these features.
Houser hopes that by researching and better understanding the processes involved with tornado formation, we will be able to more accurately predict when tornadoes will or will not actually be occurring. Her research findings may help locate patterns or find storm features that will be the key to identifying tornado formation. This information will give forecasters more time to issue warnings, and people more time to take appropriate safety precautions.
“Watching the storm on the radar display, knowing that there's a violent tornado on the ground and that it's heading toward a densely populated area is a horrible, helpless feeling,” she says. “As a scientist, you want to study these storms to unravel their mysteries, but it's also gut-wrenching knowing the destruction and loss of life they cause.”
Areas of Expertise