Storm Prediction Center
By Keli Pirtle (NOAA Public Affairs) and Ariel Cohen (SPC)
Q: How did you get into weather?
It was in the early 1980s, when I was six years old, and an intense downburst created massive wind damage across the town in South Dakota where I lived.
Winds were estimated at 125 mph.
It destroyed huge trees and structures in my neighborhood, including my tree house.
My family assumed it was a tornado.
I remember the tornado warning going off on our TV – a bright yellow screen with a black tornado symbol in the middle and a very memorable alarm.
Since then, I have been interested in weather.
The images below show some of the damage from this weather event and were published in the July 1982 edition of NOAA’s “Storm Data.”
Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC. How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?
I knew I was going to become a meteorologist, so I never really thought twice about it.
I just walked the path.
I went to college at the University of Kansas, and my first job with the National Weather Service was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I worked a few years in Boise, Idaho, until I joined the Storm Prediction Center in December 2000, where I am now a Mesoscale/Outlook Forecaster.
Severe weather has always interested me the most.
This naturally has roots in the original storm in 1982, but also later living in Kansas and storm chasing after I learned to drive.
Back then, you could go out chasing, and there would be no one else around – just rumbles of thunder in the distance, waves of blowing wheat, and a few birds riding the air currents.
When I was in high school, I saw storms with golf ball and baseball sized hail, and a big supercell thunderstorm that produced 100-mile-an-hour winds and six inches of rain in one hour.
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
I graduated from the University of Kansas in 1998 with an Atmospheric Science degree.
The degree helped lay a solid foundation.
I added to it by reading the latest severe weather research published in weather and forecasting journals and other tech memos.
In the end, it's just "doing" the job and gaining experience that makes you a better forecaster.
So if you really want to become a good forecaster, start forecasting!
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
There are many challenging aspects to this job.
First, it is a challenge just to assimilate all the available data into the forecast process.
You have a limited amount of time to make a diagnosis and convey that information to your customers.
There is so much data available, both observationally and in model output, you cannot possibly analyze it all.
You have to consider each forecast scenario and determine which tools will be most useful.
This skill is gained with experience.
Then there is the obvious challenge, and that is getting the forecast right.
No forecast is ever perfect, but you try to learn from each one and apply what you've learned to the next situation.
After a while, it can become second nature.
Another challenge is conveying your thoughts to the ever-widening customer base.
In the past, SPC only produced products for other NWS entities.
Now, we have a large Internet presence with a wide array of users.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career?
I have done extensive work researching severe hail environments, and have developed tools SPC forecasters use routinely to produce hail outlooks.
Forecasting maximum hail size is very difficult, but we have increased our skill substantially with the help of these research-based operational tools.
Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I am a drummer and a weightlifter.
Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists?
If you enjoy forecasting, you will probably get good at it.
But practice forecasting without looking at high-resolution model output.
If it's the day the weather will occur, try forecasting without ANY model data of any kind.
Use only observations and trust your eyes.
Models will lead you astray if you can't tell what is useful or not.
Anyone can look at models, but the challenge is in interpreting them correctly.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Certainly working at the SPC!
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