Storm Prediction Center
By Ariel Cohen (SPC) and Keli Pirtle (NOAA Communications)
Q: How did you get into weather?
I can't remember a particular event from which I became really interested.
Storms truly have captivated me since infancy.
My mom loved to tell the story of how, as a baby, I would crawl to the screen door to watch lightning and hear thunder—the brighter and louder, the better.
When I was three, my parents created an audiotape interview of me, asking what I wanted to do when I grew up.
The answer: "I wanna be in a hurricane!"
At age six, I told everyone I would be a tornado meteorologist.
As a kid and teen, I compiled thousands of notecards containing information on individual tornadoes throughout U.S. history.
I've been chasing and photographing storms since I learned to drive, and aim to do so long after retirement.
The passion never dims, and I'm living my dream.
Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC. How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?
As a kid, I had read about the University of Oklahoma's meteorology program and knew of the National Severe Storms Laboratory's field work, so it only was natural to study here and try to work at the Lab.
I showed up at NSSL one cold December day of my freshman year and asked if they had any student-researcher openings.
Luckily, my motivation paid off.
I worked mostly for Don Burgess for four years as an undergrad, and he was a great mentor and teacher.
It was an incomparable learning experience, to absorb knowledge from the world's top severe-weather scientists, help out with Doppler-radar research, chase with the field crews (including TOTO – the TOtable Tornado Observatory project), and organize and manage the lab's film and slide collection.
In the 1980s and early '90s, quick access to real-time weather data did not exist outside the office.
One had to be a keen forecaster and understand the sky’s language for consistent success at storm observing.
That definitely motivated me to improve my forecasting ability.
As undergrads, Rich Thompson, fellow lead forecaster at the SPC, and I storm-chased together quite often and drilled each other on the meteorology of historic tornado cases.
Scientific-forecast understanding is globally applicable, so when I was hired at the National Hurricane Center out of graduate school, tropical meteorology came naturally.
By then, I was on the career track that led to SPC, but still loved the research side.
I have a deep passion for furthering the science through forecast-related research, whether as an author, reviewer, journal editor, or mentor for a student.
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
Several of the OU courses set a solid foundation—including some in the English and geography departments.
By far, the most valuable was Chuck Doswell's inaugural "Advanced Forecast Techniques" class in graduate school.
The homework and map discussions were based on current or recent weather situations.
That course was very rigorous but absolutely indispensable.
To this day, I’m far better off for it.
Finally, the sky is the best weather lab.
Every year, direct storm observing teaches me insights about storm behavior that simply cannot be found on textbook pages or glowing screens.
That makes me a better forecaster at work.
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
This work is never boring!
I get to draw weather maps and forecast severe thunderstorms on a daily basis while serving the American taxpayer's need for severe-storm safety.
Watches and especially outlooks are very complex.
Teamwork is so important: we weave each of our strengths together every shift to the benefit of the forecasting, regardless of whose name is attached to the forecast.
Each forecast is a test, and the atmosphere holds the answer key.
It's humbling but important to find out how little we still understand about some situations.
Fortunately, I appreciate a tough challenge, and severe-storms forecasting fulfills that objective.
I'm also a huge advocate of map analysis by hand as it forces me to swim in the data and truly "get" it.
As my late friend and top-caliber forecaster Al Moller often insisted, storm forecasting is as much an art as a science, and the subjective human element must flourish too.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career?
Hard question! Since there's no single achievement that stands out, I'd have to be generic and say: helping the science of severe-storms meteorology advance to improve and save lives.
That happens through learning, reading, publishing research, giving talks, helping folks to reduce their risk from severe storms, being a mentor, or striving to forecast well on a daily basis so the taxpayer is getting the best possible return on his/her investment in me.
Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
One of my strong interests outside weather is geology.
Instead of gems, precious minerals, or fossils, I simply collect "ordinary" representative stones from nearly every place I travel, and bring home multiple specimens.
Some get categorized by formation name and age, then labeled for a collection.
Others go into an outdoor garden of "rocks from everywhere."
However, since I believe in giving and not just taking, I’ll leave pieces of red Oklahoma stone from my property in many places I travel.
Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists?
Common advice about having diverse skills such as programming and social science is wise.
Still, sharp communication ability is more crucial than ever.
In a world of texting and sound bites, the aspiring meteorologist who also is a polished technical and creative writer stands out, and has a distinct advantage.
More doors of opportunity will open if you master the fundamentals of writing, grow a huge vocabulary and use it, develop powerful composition skills, and weave these concepts together in consistently persuasive prose.
Never stop reading-both in the science and for personal pleasure.
Be authentic and principled, even if it seems disadvantageous right now.
True accomplishment means never selling out to expedience or corner-cutting.
"Good enough" is not good enough-strive always for excellence!
Also, watch what you put on social media.
Assume every photo and post will be seen by a future employer, regardless of privacy settings.
Q: What are the most memorable experiences of your career?
My most memorable career experiences were Category-5 Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, and the Oklahoma tornado outbreak of 3 May 1999, which featured a long-tracked F5 and a larger, longer-tracked F4.
Each delivered highest-end storm intensity with historically huge damage and economic impact, after extremely challenging forecasts.
Each revealed the resiliency and determination to recover in devastated communities half a nation apart.
Though any loss of life is awful, both could have been far, far worse without excellent public preparation and storm warnings.
I was fortunate enough to experience both from multiple perspectives: forecaster, direct eyewitness observer, and post-event surveyor.
For someone who loves tornadoes and hurricanes, those were storms of a lifetime.
Their human impact reinforced a desire to keep improving and learning, so that similar storms of the future can cause fewer casualties.
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