Storm Prediction Center
By Keli Pirtle (NOAA Communications) and Ariel Cohen (SPC)
Q: How did you get into weather?
My dad was an ultralight pilot back in the early 1980s when I was a kid. He used
NOAA Weather Radio to get weather information to adjust his flight plans. One day, he
gave me his radio to keep. Not long afterwards. I experienced two inspiring weather
events. The first was a tornado outbreak when a tornado moved through our southeast
Texas community close to our home. Three people were killed in southeast Texas, each
from a separate tornado. The two-day event spawned 43 tornadoes, killed six, and
injured 90. After the tornado, we were out of power for a couple days. Then, three
months later, the eye of Hurricane Alicia passed over my house. During the storm, I was
the weatherman for our family. Near the height of the storm, a tornado moved down a
neighboring street. I peered out the window and watched our trees violently shake. As the
tornado warning came out, my family took shelter in the interior hallway of our home. It
was there that I read the book, "Hurricanes and Twisters," by Robert Irving. After that, I
wanted to be a meteorologist. As a 12-year-old boy, I put up my weather station. I would
get up at 5:30 a.m. to take weather observations and watch "AM Weather" on a black and
white TV. I was hooked.
Q: Describe the path leading up to your job at the SPC. How did it develop your interest in severe storms forecasting?
After graduating from college, I was assigned to my first National Weather Service office
in Jackson, Kentucky. About two years later, I was promoted to forecaster and went to
Aberdeen, South Dakota, and about two years after that I became a forecaster at
Amarillo, Texas. In January 2003, I moved to Norman to work at the Storm Prediction
Center as a Mesoscale/Outlook forecaster. I have always been interested in forecasting
severe storms since my college days. Wherever I have moved for my career, I have
chased storms during my off-work time. I also have enjoyed providing talks at area
schools. I like to show kids a supercell model I made that is six feet long, four feet high,
and produces a tornado using rotating air and dry ice steam. At each NWS office, I work
on projects that fuel my passion for severe storms. By the time I worked at Amarillo, I
informally practiced creating severe weather outlooks. That prepared me for working at
Q: What educational background helped you get to your career today?
I earned degrees in Meteorology and Journalism from the University of Northern
Colorado in Greeley. The meteorology program at UNC was run by Dr. Glen Cobb who
was one of the best teachers I have ever had. Glen really cared about his students and you
could relate to him on a personal level. I considered him a good friend. He set a great
example for me and helped inspire my love for weather. Glen's program focused on the
forecasting aspect of meteorology. He was very good at teaching his students how to
apply what we learned to real world situations, and his program did a good job preparing
me for the NWS.
Q: What is it about your job that interests you?
The convective outlook is my favorite product to issue. I enjoy forecasting
outbreaks more than any other event type. I have focused my research on understanding
tornado outbreak patterns. Recognizing the potential for a tornado outbreak is the key to
getting a "High Risk" correct. The "High Risk" days are the most exciting to forecast
because everything is on the line. To me, issuing a "High Risk" is the most
packed and intense decision you can make at the SPC. I enjoy that challenge.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career?
My greatest accomplishment is getting to work at the SPC. I work with people who have
outstanding professionalism and are fun to work with. The chemistry among our staff is
top notch. People here are smart and communicate very well. My co-workers are self-
motivated and rarely miss opportunities to excel. It is a great privilege to work with
people of this caliber.
Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I'm a four-wheel-drive enthusiast. I've taken three excursions this past year. Two
were to the Little Sahara Sand Dunes in northwest Oklahoma and one was to the Big Red
Off Road Park about 25 miles east of Norman. I’m planning on going to Moab, Utah in
August. I love the challenge of driving through difficult terrain. When going over
boulders, I love to be bounced around in my seat while every bolt is tested on the Jeep.
Q: What advice would you provide to the up-and-coming meteorologists?
The first thing would be to find your interests and focus on developing your strengths.
If your interest is severe weather, practice making your own forecasts and compare those to
the SPC. Forecast where you think the greatest tornado threat will be on a given day and
then evaluate your forecasts. Also, observing storms in the field can help your
understanding of the severe weather process. The second thing would be to network with
people. Make friends within the weather community and develop relationships with
people in your specific area of interest. Finally, learn to write computer programs and
research papers. Programming enables you to make applications that make life easier and
more interesting for others. Writing papers helps transfer knowledge to those who are
Q: What are the most memorable experiences of your career?
Issuing the initial Day 2 "High Risk" for April 14, 2012. The intensity associated with
forecast was off the charts. After issuing the "High Risk," I got a total of five hours of
sleep during the two nights preceding the event. Then, my wife and I chased into
northwest Oklahoma on April 14 where we saw eight tornadoes and a couple of high-
contrast tornadoes at close range. Seeing the "High Risk" actually verify was the most
exciting day of my career and being out in the field to see some of the tornadoes made it
even more special.
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